Friday, May 28, 2010

The Five Worst Series Finales

As with yesterday's season finale list, I have decided to confine this list to shows within my lifetime. Like I said yesterday, this is a purely subjective list, and hopefully it will spur some of you to comment with your own picks that I missed.

In retracing all the TV finales I've watched over the years, I've realized there are a lot of final episodes that range from "meh" to "okay." Most shows manage to turn out a sendoff that is at least passable. In the cases where there's greater pressure on a finale to wrap up a major epic, or a more demanding premise, that's usually where you'll see shows fall on their face.

With that in mind, it's not surprising that there are few sitcoms on this list. In a lot of ways the bar is lower for them. Most of the episodes on this list are ones that provoked epic amounts of "Fan rage" upon their original airings.

5) Quantum Leap: "Mirror Image" - I debated if this one was fair, as the creators shot it when the future of their series was in doubt. Still, this was intended as a launching pad into the next season and they had supposedly been warned it could be the final episode. The episode is a bizarre bore that has Sam leaping into his own adult body and finding himself in a strange metaphysical bar on the exact day of his birth. Others in the bar appear to be either leapers or odd echos of previous leaps, along with a bartender who might be the God/Time/Whoever that sends Sam on his leaps. There's a nice moment near the end where Sam uses his one "free leap" to fix things for Al rather than go home, but then the episode concludes with the biggest middle finger to fans it could have had: a caption reading "Dr. Sam Beckett never returned home."

4) Enterprise: "These Are the Voyagers" - Poor Scott Bakula. He's a great actor but is the star of two of the worst finales of all-time. This episode was a slap in the face to the Enterprise cast, as the whole story is framed as a holograph simulation being played by Next Generation's Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) in a segment that's meant to take place during TNG's seventh season episode "The Pegasus." The regulars play second-fiddle in their own finale with an utterly boring story that pointlessly kills off Engineer Tucker, and then denies the audience any real closure by neglecting to show a historic speech the captain is supposedly fated to give.

3) 7th Heaven: "Goodbye and Thank You" - I didn't watch the show regularly, but I couldn't resist tuning in for this trainwreck. Not only does all the interesting stuff happen off-screen (such as a bride and groom canceling their wedding while at the altar). Not only does the show eat up time with three badly staged, acted and written fantasy scenes that seem to be there only to incorporate Jessica Biel into the show. Not only does the twist that all three Camden couples are pregnant with twins cause eye-rolling of epic proportions. But the ratings for this episode (no doubt from people like me who came to dance on this show's grave) were high enough to motivate the CW to bring the show back for yet another year. The casualty: Everwood.

(I know the mere fact that this wasn't really the end should disqualify it from this list, but it's MY list and it was fully intended as the end right up until the week after it aired. I say it counts.)

2) Star Trek: Voyager: "Endgame" - The entire premise of the show was about a Starfleet ship, stranded decades from home. For seven seasons, we watched as the crew struggled to find a faster way back, even as they pulled together. I could have forgiven the time-travel cheat that sends them home 17 years ahead of schedule, essentially amounting to a deus ex machina. I could have looked past yet another use of the Borg, a once-threatening enemy that Voyager declawed through overuse. I even could have looked past the complete lack of sacrifice or consequence here. What I can't ignore is that the audience waited seven years to see what would happen when the crew made it back - and the show fades to ending credits before Voyager reaches Earth orbit.

And the Worst Finale of All-Time (in my humble opinion)....

1) The X-Files: "The Truth" - The only thing the show got right here was bringing back David Duchovney. To really explain everything wrong with the finale would probably mean discussing what went wrong with this series as a whole. Suffice to say that at least half - if not more - of the episode is taken up with a trial that serves only to lecture to the audience about what they already know of the alien conspiracy. The main character is passive, sitting there while everyone else is stuck rehashing old territory (not unlike the Seinfeld finale, actually.)

Worse, though the episode was advertised as explaining everything, it's clear the writers can't fold all their red herrings into a single coherent conspiracy explanation. The one bit of the conspiracy that never made sense to me was the whole super-soldier plot, which emerged from thin air in season eight. The trial scenes attempt to skirt this, but it's clear those twists can't be made to work with the bees, the black oil, the alien embryos and all the other malarkey we were asked to swallow for nine years.

With "The Truth" as its valedictory address, The X-Files makes an excellent case for why one shouldn't follow a series that's based on a never-ending circle jerk of mysteries and conspiracies - or at the very least, why one shouldn't expect any satisfaction out of the ending. After being burned on this show, I watched the first two seasons of Lost, always on guard that nothing would ever make sense. I finally quit during the third season when I realized that not only was I completely indifferent to the mysteries, but that I actively hated 2/3 of the characters.

I know there are people who would argue that Seinfeld's finale deserves to be on this list. My feeling is that Seinfeld never had anything it needed to resolve. That last episode was surely a disappointment, but it feels so unlike a normal episode that it's easy for me to divorce it from the series. It doesn't taint the rest of the series for me.

What are your picks?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Ten Best Series Finales

It's that time of year again, that time when several long-running and beloved series take their final bows. The TV blogosphere becomes littered with articles on greatest sign-offs, challenging this year's crop to match such luminaries as M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I've decided to take a slightly different approach with my list.

TV watching is a different experience than film-going. Over several seasons, the cast of a beloved TV show becomes like a group of friends we invite into our living rooms week-after-week. Thus, the pressure on that final visit is so much greater. It can't just be a good story - it has to be a fulfilling conclusion to that emotional bond. So for this reason, it's impossible for someone of my generation to have quite the same reaction to the final MTM episode as someone who spent several years of their lives living with those characters.

It's all about closure. Does the audience get the closure they deserve on these characters and stories. Does the finale honor what worked best about the series while providing a satisfying coda?

So when it came time to compile my list, I decided to limit the shows to those that concluded within my lifetime. You can complain that's arbitrary, but hey, it's MY list!

10) Mad About You: "The Final Frontier" - I'm sure I'll get flack that this is on the list while other sitcoms like Frasier and Friends aren't. For my money, this finale was simply better - a time-hopping trip that traces Paul and Jamie's future over the next thirty years. It's a well-constructed, bittersweet episode.

9) Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "What You Leave Behind" - The first Trek series to take a more serialized approach to story-telling had a lot to resolve by its final two hours. There are some flaws (namely that while both the resolution of the Dominion War and the conflict with the Bajoran deities are resolved, the two stories have little to do with each other.) There's a sense that this could have benefited from one more draft but the final fifteen minutes hit the right notes, with Captain Sisko's "death" and promise to one day return home, the departures of Odo, Worf and O'Brien, and most effectively, the final shot of the show. The series' final image begins with Jake Sisko staring at the wormhole, waiting for his father and then pulls back from the window into space until Deep Space Nine is just another light in the heavens.

8) Cheers: "One for the Road" - The return of Shelly Long's Diane Chambers is the perfect catalyst for Sam Malone to finally get serious about what he really wants out of life. In the end, he realizes his one true love is his bar. Every character gets their moment, and the series leaves with a sense that life will go on as normal, even though a few changes have happened.

7) The Wonder Years: "Summer/Independence Day" - Focusing almost exclusively on Kevin and Winnie during a summer where they both work at a resort, the episode takes their relationship to the next level before returning home. With the theme from The Natural playing in the background as the Arnold clan attends a Fourth of July parade, adult Kevin's narration provides a moving coda for all the characters' fates. Saddest of all, Kevin's dad Jack passes away two years after the parade.

6) Star Trek: The Next Generation: "All Good Things..." - Despite wallowing in some technobabble, this finale is one of the series best episodes. Quantum Leap-like time-travel is the conceit that has Captain Picard moving back and forth through time in three key periods: the first day he took command of the Enterprise, his present day, and 25 years in the future, when he must reunite his crew to help solve a time-spanning mystery with the fate of humanity in the balance. It's a nice reflection on how far the characters have come, and where they might end up.

5) Dawson's Creek: "All Good Things.../...Must Come to an End" - Kevin Williamson returned to pen this finale, which serves as its own reunion movie. Set five years in the future, Dawson and his friends come together for the first time in years to celebrate his mother's wedding. The Dawson/Joey/Pacey triangle is resolved in the only way it could have, but the two-hours really belongs to Michelle Williams' wrenching performance as the dying Jen Lindley. If the scene of her recording a message for her infant daughter to view one day doesn't get you, the quiet moment when Grams realizes Jen has passed will. Still fighting cancer, Grams whispers to her departed granddaughter, "I'll see you soon, child. Soon."

4) Arrested Development: "Development Arrested" - There's no way I can do this justice in even a capsule review, and this probably isn't the kind of episode that a casual viewer can appreciate because so much of it comes out of the callbacks and resolutions of long-running gags. If you're a fan, you get it. If not, go back and watch all three seasons. It's worth it. I promise.

3) Everwood: "Foreverwood" - If all had gone according to plan, this episode - which sees widower Andy Brown finally let go of the memory of his dead wife - would have launched several storylines for season five and sent the show in a new direction. Alas, 7th Heaven's finale ratings convinced the network that that withering corpse still had life in it, and this became Everwood's swan song. It works as a conclusion, though. The end of one chapter in Andy Brown's life, with the promise of more to follow.

2) ER: "And In The End..." - Like TNG's finale, this episode serves as a perfect bookend to the series' pilot episode. From the details like the opening scene - a direct homage to the opening of the pilot - to Dr. Carter taking Rachel Greene, the daughter of his late mentor, under his wing, this episode brings a lot of things full-circle. Old characters return for one last hurrah, but for me in particular, the greatest return is that of the opening credits music and the Benton kung-fu punch. This is how you end a long running series with class.

1) Angel: "Not Fade Away..." - Angel and his team make one desperate effort to derail their enemies plans. Knowing full well that they can't stop the apocalypse entirely, they instead aim to disrupt Wolfram & Hart's plans to bring it about themselves. Aware that they can't possibly walk away from this alive, the team spends one last day doing what they love, then executes their plan to awesome effect. The ending is a great non-cliffhanger, as Angel and his survivors meet in an alley, only to see thousands of demon soldiers and a dragon closing in on them. Though they're clearly as doomed as General Custer, Angel and his men draw up for one last fight, as Angel confidently tells his friends "Let's get to work!"

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Interview with SHREK FOREVER AFTER and DATE NIGHT writer Josh Klausner - Part II: Date Night

Part 1 - Breaking in and Shrek

We continue our talk with screenwriter Josh Klausner.

I understand that Date Night was a case where director Shawn Levy came up with the premise and then handpicked you to execute it. Did you have a working history with him?

Nope. We’d met a few times, and his company was trying to the script I mentioned before called (Saint) Peter. He loved the script and wanted to find something for us to work on together. There was another project we started throwing around that didn’t end up working out, then Shawn suggested this.

How did Date Night evolve? Did Shawn just have a one or two-line pitch and ask you to run wild in finding the story, or is he one of those directors who sat down and talked you through every major action beat that he’d like to see?

A little bit of both on that one. We discussed the premise, and then I went off and came up with some ideas for it that I pitched to him. We then sat down for a day and brainstormed off of that. I then took our brainstorming and transformed it a bunch as it turned into a script.

What do you find most rewarding about working on assignment like this?

Well, I’ll tell ya, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have Shawn Levy in your corner when you’re writing something for Fox. I really like Shawn and the people at 21 Laps, so working with them was a great experience. Also, just how quickly the project all came together was pretty fantastic. I handed in my revision off the first set of studio notes, and 24 hours later we were out to Tina and Steve.

I perceived a definite Hitchcock influence on the film – was that more your or Shawn’s vision there?

I’m obsessed with Hitchcock. If you see my film, The 4th Floor, there’s certainly a homage to Rear Window in it (although what I tried to do is make you realize halfway through the movie that we weren’t seeing the story unfold from Jimmy Stewart’s perspective – WE were the building where the murder was going to take place) What I love most about North by Northwest is how a large, expansive and dangerous adventure starts from a simple and innocent case of mistaken identity – it’s not like our heroes are drug dealers or have any nefarious connections… they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. As an audience member, I immediately connect more to the adventure because it really feels like it could happen to me.

What was the first thing you guys really cracked on this script? Was it the structure, the character arcs or the set-pieces?

Definitely the character arcs. We knew the story we wanted to tell was all about this couple and their relationship. How they aren’t out of love – they still love each other very much – but life has gotten in the way. They’ve stopped communicating. And it’s only through the high stakes they get thrown into that all the small things that add up finally come out and they’re honest with each other. And in that honesty, they fall in love all over again. The worst night of their life is the best Date they’ve ever had.

Whose idea was the car chase gag?

That was a great example of collaborating with Shawn. We had reached a point in the story where Shawn really felt the urge for more action. He wanted there to be a car chase with the cops. I objected because a car chase just felt generic to me – what could force our relatable characters into an extended car chase that wouldn’t feel like every other “nervous normal people in a car chase” scene that we’d seen before. I didn’t want to do it unless we could find some way to make it different. It’s then that Shawn recounted how the day he got his driver’s license, he tried parking his car and smashed into the car in front of him and the bumpers got stuck together. I thought it was amazing and the conjoined car chase was born! I then got the idea that Phil and Claire could end up in the different cars during the chase, trying to work together to drive, so it became in many ways about their communication in their relationship (with, of course, a marriage counselor of a taxi driver along for the ride as well) It was really fun to write.

I really like how there was a strong effort at giving the couple a real arc rather than just putting them in these extreme situations and watching them react. It’s something that seems to be less common in today’s films unfortunately. Were you making a conscious effort to bring that back?

You hit it on the head. It’s what I’m proudest about with the film, I think. Unlike so many of these comedies coming out that feel like someone came up with a bunch of funny gags or concepts and situations and then had to think of character arcs to string them together and make them work, I really feel like the comedy comes out of the relationship journey that Phil and Claire go through. In our movie, their relationship was our “concept.”

I rail a lot at bad spec scripts that throw in gratuitous scenes in a strip club, or find really thin reasons to get their female characters mostly naked. Yet I like the way that even though Tina Fey has to get disguised as a stripper, you guys found a way to play that beat so that it really addressed something in their marriage. Did it take some effort to get that in there so seamlessly?

Well, one of the things we wanted to play with (and were also criticized for in many reviews) was what would happen if an everyday couple that we established with real, relatable problems was thrown into a crazy 80’s adventure movie, with car chases and gangsters and strip clubs. How would they react, and how would the journey affect the real issues in their relationship. We thought it was a fun idea to play with. Along those lines, another thing to play with as well is the roles that men and women play in these movies, and switch them up too. It’s Claire who goes to see Holbrooke, making Phil jealous. Claire who breaks into the real estate office. And Phil who in the end has to work the pole to woo the DA. I think when Phil is chosen by the DA and Claire turns with a smile and says the whole, “You’re the father of our children” line back at him, it’s a fun moment where we realize how deeply ingrained these gender roles have become… certainly in movies.

Were there any unique challenges to writing Date Night?

I would just say the juxtaposition of grounding the real and relatable world and relationship of the couple with the heightened and sometimes absurd movie reality of the adventure they get thrown into. And balancing a bunch of tones – feeling their real fear and jeopardy while remaining a comedy, and the finessing level of discord in their relationship so we feel they have serious problems, but not so seriously that we love with each other. It was a fine line to walk the threat to their relationship without ever having it seem like they’d break up.

In later rewrites, when you knew you were writing for two brilliant comedians and improvisers, did you have to watch yourself to make sure you don’t get lazy and figure, “Eh, Steve will have a funnier line on set?”

No. But he inevitably did think up funnier lines, as did she. Those two were amazing, and we were very lucky to get them. It’s hard now to believe the original script wasn’t written with them in mind. They just fell so naturally into the parts.

Is it easier to accept rewrite notes on assignment work like this because the script is less “your baby?” Or do you find yourself getting attached as the script evolves, just as you would with an original spec?

It’s definitely easier. This was always Shawn Levy’s baby, and while I was of course emotionally invested, I felt lucky to be asked to be a creative part of this project. The script that made Shawn want to work with me, (Saint) Peter, is a screenplay that I feel very precious about. And there have been others where the changes have upset me more. I actually think it’s good to have a balance of the two kinds of work as a screenwriter – projects that are your babies and the ones that you care about but don’t get too emotionally involved in. It’s an interesting process a lot of the time with studio notes, because I find I learn a lot and push myself as a writer by stepping outside of my comfort zone and finding ways to satisfy the problems their having without feeling like I’m compromising myself.

It’s interesting that your resume includes an animated comedy, action-comedy, and a slow-burn thriller, three genres that are somewhat different from each other. Is there a particular genre you prefer to write in or do you enjoy changing it up? Would you like to write another horror film?

And I was primarily a dramatic playwright in school. It’s essential to me that I keep doing different things. I try to mix it all up as much as I can – it keeps the stories interesting for me. I like many different genres of films for different reasons, so I don’t want to limit myself on the type of stories I want to tell. I just finished a live action version of Thomas the Tank engine set in England during World War 2, I’m working on a very emotional and sweet movie for Amy Adams and Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps called The 10 Best Days of My Life, and on a kind of action adventure film involving Houdini’s magic legacy for Mark Waters and Walden Media. Then, hopefully, I’m going to take some time to write for myself… something I haven’t had the chance to do in a few years.

Thanks again to Josh for all his time in doing this interview. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcklaus.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Interview with SHREK FOREVER AFTER and DATE NIGHT writer Josh Klausner - Part 1: Breaking in and SHREK

Once again I'm in the position of interviewing a screenwriter the week after his movie hit number one at the box office. For Josh Klausner, this is becoming something of a habit. Not only did his Shrek Forever After top the charts this weekend, but it was just over a month ago that his previous film, Date Night, reigned. Despite being a very busy man at the moment, Josh was nice enough to submit to an email interview.

IMDB gives a hint at your career path, but I was hoping you could fill in the blanks. You got your start as an assistant to the Farrelly Brothers on one of my favorite comedies, Dumb & Dumber. Any notable anecdotes from your time working with them?

Well, when I started working on it, Dumb and Dumber was supposed to be a small movie starring Jake Johansson, and then a week later Jim Carrey came on board and everything changed. Maybe because it was my first real job in the movie industry (and maybe because as their assistant there wasn’t a great deal of responsibility on my shoulders), it’s the most fun I’ve ever had working on a movie. It felt so epic… because it was a road movie we travelled to so many different climates and terrains over the course of shooting, and also had these extended holiday breaks in the middle (one for Jim Carrey to have Gall Bladder surgery, if I remember correctly) It was interesting too because, as it was the first Farrelly Brothers movie, it was very hard for us working on the film to gauge what the tone was going to turn out like and if it was going to work – it wasn’t like any of the comedies any of us had seen before.

Looking at your credits, I get the impression that they’re good to people who have proven themselves with them because you got to direct second unit on four of their subsequent pictures. Did it take much persuasion for them to give you that job?

I’m incredibly grateful to the Farrellys. They took a huge chance on me when they were making Kingpin by having me direct 2nd Unit. I had loved being their assistant, but knew the longer I stayed in that position, the more it would come to define me. So when they called about me working on their next movie Kingpin, I naively told them that I wanted to be their 2nd Unit Director. Pete Farrelly was stunned at first, I think, but then his take on it was, “Sure, why not? We can always fire you if you fuck up.” I worked hard not to fuck up on that job… the 2nd Unit on Kingpin was crazy. Everything from all these bowling ball rigs and special effects to car jumps to Amish Barn raisings with helicopter shots. I’m not unique – the Farrellys have been great to just about everyone who’s worked with them – they’re very good about letting people move up if they have the ability and initiative. They even went so far as to write and produce a movie for their original AD JB Rodgers to direct.

During all this time were you still working on specs, trying to break in as a writer?

I was writing, but at the time I thought that the way I was going to “break in” was as a small indie writer/director… not as someone selling big Hollywood scripts to studios. I thought my path would be through small movies in the independent world. Ironically, it’s ended up being quite the opposite.

How did working for the Farrellys put you in a better position to launch your writing and directing career?

In so many ways. In working for the Farrellys, I was essentially paid to go to film school. It gave me the firsthand experience of seeing how the page ends up translating to screen. I saw the way that they interacted not only with the actors but also with the financiers who were making their movie. As their 2nd Unit Director also I got to work closely with their editor. Often, there would be two different comic takes from one scene that the Farrellys wanted but didn’t cut together, so we’d figure out cutaways or insert I could shoot to connect the two. Moreover, during those years working as their 2nd Unit Director certainly allowed me to stay in film and make a decent living so that I had more time to write. It’s all about time in the end, isn’t it?

In 1999, your professional writing and directorial debut, The 4th Floor, was released. Can you talk a little bit about how that came together?

My 2nd Unit work on Kingpin actually got me some interest from agents, which was all the more reinforced by the fact that they discovered I was a writer. I ended up signing with Joanne Wiles, who is still my agent, right around the time I has written the script for The 4th Floor. We luckily were able to get William Hurt and Juliette Lewis interested as soon as we sent it to them, which led to the film getting financed rather quickly.

As a first time director, did you have many clashes with the production companies on the film, Millennium Films and Top Floor Productions?

To be honest, the whole experience of making The 4th Floor ranks up there as among my darkest days. The company behind the film was Nu Image, which has a very specific and financially successful model for making movies involving foreign presales with internationally known stars. Most of their movies are action adventures along the lines of Cyborg Cop 3 (which I haven’t seen, so it might be great).

At the time, Brad Weston, who I really liked, was starting up what was supposed to be their new boutique division called Millennium Films. The 4th Floor was supposed to be the 2nd film under his guidance, but the head of Nu Image got nervous about Brad’s first film being too “artsy,” (a great movie called Guinevere) and took Brad off of my film and put his Nu Image action B movie producers on it as we started shooting.

I had originally written a very atmospheric, slow moving story that was along the lines of Roman Polanski’s THE TENANT about living in apartment buildings with unknown others and getting into an altercation with a mysterious neighbor, where our protagonist slowly realizes she’s battling against someone who’s not playing with a full deck and that her life is in danger. It was all about how, when it comes to our home space, we become instinctual animals again, peeing in the corners and doing whatever it takes to protect our sanctuaries. Well, this wasn’t what those producers were interested in. The only thing they understood about my script was that Juliette Lewis and William Hurt had agreed to do it. They wanted action, terror, gore and nudity. There were producers’ girlfriends demanding scenes be added so they could have parts, producers’ assistants writing scenes behind my back that they tried to force me to shoot.

Being a first time director on an isolated film shoot (we shot this story, set in New York, in a paper mill town in Canada called St. Johns that you had to take a propeller plane to get to), I bent much more than I should have, agreeing to film an extended “chase” scene at the end that didn’t make much sense. But then it all finally came to a head and I reached my breaking point when they threatened to fire me if I didn’t film some cheesy “creepy possessed talking puppet” scene that some assistant had written. I told them they could do what they wanted, but I couldn’t shoot it, and walked off to tell Juliette Lewis that I was being fired. Juliette came to my aid and told them she wasn’t working on the film if it wasn’t with me – I was the reason she had signed up for it – and Nu Image backed off for the final few days of shooting. That didn’t stop them from doing reshoots without even telling me and recutting the movie.

All that being said, there’s a lot in the first hour of the film in terms of tone and look that I like and feels like what I was going for. And I was able to make a movie on someone else’s dime as a first time director, which is incredibly fortunate. I also certainly wouldn’t be the writer I am today without that whole experience. It taught me a lot about the stories I want to tell.

I read an interview with Austin Pendleton where he talks about how after the table read for The 4th Floor he suggested you drop a lot of little jokes and bits of humor from the script, and praises you for being so immediately receptive. Is his memory accurate, and if so, why was your instinct to listen to him so immediate?

Yes… I would say that was pretty accurate. Whether he knew it or not, we were always after the same thing... his character needed to feel charming and endearing when we meet him, then surprise us with what he turns out to be later on. Because Austin organically has that likability, we could tone down the comedy a lot and still get across what we needed for the character. Also, it was important that Austin owned the part and believed in it himself… if he felt silly, it wasn’t going to work. I’m a real believer in film as a collaborative art form, and that it’s more exciting for me to see how an actor adapts what I’ve written down in ways I could have never imagined as opposed to them simply hitting the marks and inflections I had in my head.

Is directing still something you’d like to pursue?

Definitely… but as is probably obvious from my previous answer, The 4th Floor was a good lesson that I don’t want to direct at all costs. It has to be the right material at the right time with the right people, who respond to not just the actors involved but also to the story. My script (Saint) Peter is something that I hope to direct, though it might take a little while… it’s an adult comedy about faith with a 10 year old protagonist whose brother everyone thinks might be the 2nd coming of Christ. Not exactly hitting those comfortable 4 quadrant buttons the financiers are looking for these days…

What were you doing between The 4th Floor and Shrek the Third?

Man, that’s a good question. All I can say is The 4th Floor was a real trial by fire learning experience for me, and was one of those situations where I had done that thing that I thought would change my life and answer all my problems – make my own movie – and it hadn’t. I kept writing, some things came close, but really I was just trying to find my voice as a writer. And you just keep the faith and do what you can to make ends meet financially until the next film job.

You are one of five writers credited with “additional screenplay material” on Shrek the Third, and the last one listed, so I assume that means you were the last rewriter on the script? What did you contribute to the final product?

I feel a little strange whenever someone refers to me in reviews or announcements as the writer of Shrek the Third. I came in really, really late on that project and had so very little to do with it. I had been hired to write the 4th Shrek, now called Shrek Forever After, while Shrek the Third was finishing up, so they asked me to come over and work on Shrek the Third as well for a little bit. The storyline and scenes for Shrek the Third had already been well established before I started, so I mostly punched up some of the dialogue where I could and helped with the emotional scenes.

How did the story for Shrek Forever After come about? Was the “It’s a Wonderful Life” riff always in place, or did the producers ask you for a pitch for the new Shrek movie?

No. Originally everyone thought it was going to be a story about taking the kids to meet Shrek’s Dad. We always knew we wanted Rumpelstiltskin to be our villain – the fairy tale “deal” thing just felt right, especially with Shrek and Fiona now having kids. We started going down that avenue, and everything just felt a bit stale, to be honest…. One more adventure with “the whole gang.” Which leads perfectly to your next question…

If the latter, was it hard finding a new premise for Shrek? It feels like the previous three films covered a lot of ground in the character’s development.

It was really hard coming up with a storyline. We went down a lot of roads before landing on this one. It just seemed to speak to so many things going on in Shrek’s life, as well as give us the opportunity to see the characters we love in a new way.

What do you do to avoid the frustration that can come with writing a character who’s already had so much ground covered?

Well, Shrek’s always evolving and changing – unlike James Bond who essentially stays the same but just goes out on different missions. Because of that, the issues facing him at this stage of his life are different from the issues in any of the other movies.

When writing a story like this, where do you start? Do you figure out the character’s journey and work outward, or did you try to find a new adventure to send him on and see what challenges arose from it?

I would say it was primarily the character’s inner journey that propelled us. Like I said before, we were really focused on where Shrek is now as a character. He’s gone from a feared and reviled hermit to a hero surrounded with family and friends. In this chapter, we wanted his perception of himself to mirror the way the audience has come to feel about him after 3 movies. If he’s no longer a “scary” Ogre to the world at large and a domesticated family man surrounded by friends, what happened to his identity? It’s a much different problem than he faced in the first movie, where he felt judged and ostracized by the world at large. That being said, we also had a feeling we wanted Rumpelstiltskin to be the villain, so by combining these two elements, the adventure seemed to evolve somewhat organically.

That's not all. Check out Part II for a look at Date Night's genesis.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Farewell to Law & Order and Jack McCoy, TV's greatest prosecutor

Farewell, Jack McCoy.

If that name has no meaning for you, then you likely haven't turned on a TV in the last sixteen years or so. Since the 1994-95 season, Sam Waterston has brought the character of Jack McCoy to life each week on Law & Order. Introduced as the Executive Assistant District Attorney, McCoy finally got a promotion to New York's District Attorney three seasons ago. He's the prosecutor we all wish was representing us, the guy who looks beyond politics and goes strictly after justice.

Tonight, after 20 seasons on NBC Law & Order will air its last original episode. 20 seasons! The only scripted show on TV that is older than that is The Simpsons, which beats L&O's first airdate by nine months. That kind of achievement is likely to never be seen again in TV. Think about this - there are students graduating college this spring who cannot remember a world where Law & Order wasn't on the air.

As the final episode was shot while it was still assumed the series would get a 21st season, the finale will likely offer no closure for long-time fans. It's utterly shameful that NBC would treat a long-time cornerstone of its lineup with this much disrespect, and one hopes that the rumors of a two-hour TV movie to tie up all the lose ends prove to be true.

It was one of the first major series to tackle issues like abortion and child abuse. The show regularly "rips from the headlines," often borrowing details of set-ups from real life cases before spinning them into new directions. Executive Producer Dick Wolf always says, "The first half of the show is a legal mystery, the second half is a moral mystery."

I started watching the show occasionally in the fifth season, McCoy's first, and became a full-blown regular viewer in season six. For me, the golden age of Law & Order is pretty much Seasons 5-10 and 18-20. When I did Mock Trial for two years in high school, I modeled my performance on Jack McCoy and walked away with three "Best Attorney" awards.

(How did I get three awards in two years? Well, each team has to compete in two trials, one as the plaintiff and one as the defendant. Usually each team member only takes one part in one trial. I handled the closing arguments and cross-examinations for both sides. So after spending the morning fighting for the plaintiff and totally demolishing the defense's witnesses on the stand, I then played the defense attorney in the afternoon and likewise cleaned the prosecution's clock.)

Late in my high school years, I discovered that A&E ran two episodes a day and within a matter of months I'd seen most of the series. When I entered college, I even scheduled my classes around the afternoon reruns. (That might - MIGHT - be an exaggeration. Or it might not.) I became a true crime buff and there might have even been a brief point when I considered pursuing law as a career. The reason I didn't? Because I don't think I wanted to be a lawyer so much as I wanted to be Jack McCoy. The thing I love about Jack is that he's always out for justice. He's not political - he's neither Republican nor Democrat even though his values and motives often coincide with one side of the aisle or the other - and neither is the show.

Now, there are some pinheads out there who are probably already set to disagree with that statement. Head to and you can find a few people complaining loudly that the show promotes a "leftist agenda" and is little more than "hippie liberal propaganda," just as a trip over to sites like Television without Pity will fairly easily lead you to some poster decrying executive producer Dick Wolf for using the show as a platform for conservative, ring-wing ideals. Anytime each political party is accusing you of shilling for the other guy, you're doing something right.

I remember when I first fully realized that I was neither Republican nor Democrat, but what I call a Jack McCoy-ican. The ninth-season finale of the series was a two-part episode called "Refuge," wherein Jack took on the Russian mob. The second part opened with the aftermath of a brutal hit that claimed the life of an ADA on the case, left an 8 year-old witness critically wounded and killed his mother. Already Jack had dealt with the opposing attorneys leaking information so that jurors could be intimidated and when the Russians plant a bomb in the basement of Police headquarters, Jack has had enough. He announces he plans on having the suspects rounded up. When his second chair and his boss remind him he doesn't have enough evidence to make the arraignments stick, Jack says he's not going to present them for arraignment. His boss, the always crusty (and much missed) Adam Schiff isn't pleased:

Adam Schiff: I see. You're planning to violate three, no, five amendments to the Constitution.
Jack McCoy: It's time someone talked to Mr. Volsky in a language he understands.
Adam Schiff: And what language is that?
Jack McCoy: Adam, unless you order me not to do it ...
Adam Schiff: I'm ordering you! (leaves)
Jack McCoy: (to his second chair ADA) Hand me that stack of arrest warrants.

Thus, Jack has his suspects locked up in what amounts to a suspension of habeas corpus, appealing to higher and higher courts to keep them locked up indefinitely.

Notably, this episode aired in 1999. Had this been done post-9/11, it would be difficult not to draw comparisons between this and the legal shellgame that the Bush Administration played with the Guantanamo detainees, many of whom might not have belonged there. The difference is, when Jack does it it's for justice and not for political gain. I defy anyone to watch that two-parter and not cheer as Jack not only locks these men up without a second thought, but then defiantly argues in higher and higher courts to keep them where they belong. And as much as the episode has characters call Jack on this behavior, it's pretty clear we're supposed to see him as heroic.

So if you look at that today, you'd be expecting Jack to be on the same side of the political spectrum as Karl Rove, right?

In the very next episode "Gunshow," the tenth season opener, deals with a case where a gunman shoots a dozen or so women in a park. The investigation quickly uncovers that the gun was a legal semi-automatic that had be easily modified into a fully-automatic weapon. McCoy learns that to make the gun tamper-proof, it would have added about $50 to the manufacturing cost of a gun that retailed for over a thousand. Outraged at the negligence, he prosecutes the gun company.

Before long, the DAs get some disturbing evidence. An internal memo shows that they not only knew about the flaw, but felt that making the gun tamper-proof would have actually hurt sales. As Jack says, the gun's vulnerability is their whole marketing plan. In doing so, he gives one of the greatest closing arguments in the series history (one I can't quote effectively because it relies on some visual components) and actually wins the case, only to have the judge set aside the verdict.

The "gun control" aspect of the plot likely ticked off a number of conservatives, just as the previous episode offended some liberals. But that's Law & Order. It deals with political issues, but it is not political itself. Everyone has had their turn as the target. No single political viewpoint is 100% right, and the show understands that better than people who make their living off of politics.

Five more Jack McCoy episodes that you MUST see:

Angel (season 6) - In a story inspired by the Susan Smith case, Jack prosecutes a mother who believes God wanted her to kill her baby, and is very nearly outmaneuvered by a green defense attorney (played by Fisher Stevens) who allows Jack to underestimate him.

Double Down (season 7) - One of the series' best episodes ever. McCoy makes a immunity deal with an armed robber who killed a cop while fleeing with his missing accomplice, agreeing to a light sentence in return for the location of a kidnapped taxi driver. When the driver is found dead, McCoy works to get the agreement nullified, then stops as soon the cops discover the robber's accomplice dead. The cops are perplexed until McCoy reveals his legal shellgame, arguing that the immunity applies only to the cop's murder and not the robber. Since he kept the robber's statement, he can use it as evidence that the two men worked together on the robbery. As Briscoe notes, "So he walks for killing a cop, but you nail him for killing the cop killer?" But it's still not that simple, and the twists keep coming right up until the end. (Netflix this one NOW!)

Thrill (season 8) - McCoy tangles with the Catholic Church to make a confession admissible in the prosecution of two teens who killed a delivery boy. This episode boasts some of Jack's slyest maneuvering as he gets the defendant's trials severed from each other to keep each boy from pointing the finger at the other as the real killer, then prosecutes them simultaneously in two different courtrooms.

Nullification (season 8) - McCoy takes on members of a right-wing militia who killed an armored truck driver while robbing an offtrack betting parlor. The militia leader represents all the men at trial and argues that they should be treated as POWs in a war against the government and push for the jury to nullify. Even when things turn against him at trial, Jack's win-at-all-costs attitude still won't allow him to use government records that should have been destroyed in order to bump one more juror and get a mistrial. After what has to be one of Jack's greatest closing arguments ever, the jury returns a hung verdict. The delighted militia leader gloats, "Admit it, Mr. McCoy. We won." With conviction in his voice, Jack says, "You didn't win anything. The system you wanted to destroy won. I'll see you back here in a couple months. Enjoy your freedom. While you still have it."

Under the Influence (season 8) - While prosecuting a drunk driver, Jack gets emotionally involved recalling how his previous assistant and lover was killed by a drunk driver. When he bends the rules to put away the defendant, he crosses a line that could get him disbarred.

There have been great episodes in the last few years too, as the new EADA Cutter has shown an even greater ingenuity than Jack in bending the rules. It's amusing to see Jack dealing with this younger, brasher version of himself. (Somewhere, Jack's former boss Adam Schiff must be smiling.) Even better, when McCoy calls Cutter on the carpet, Cutter is always quick to site an earlier episode where Jack bent the rules in similar ways. As a Law & Order fanboy, I enjoy trying to beat Cutter to his references and its nice to see a show that remembers its history even 10 or 15 years after the fact.

So farewell, Law & Order. We'll always have the reruns and the DVDs, but it won't be quite the same.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Friday Free-For-All: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In honor of that, I wanted to post this promo-clip from the Buffy cartoon that ended up never going to series:

And now a few clips from the musical. First, the opening number "Going Through the Motions," which is pretty clearly in the tradition of Disney songs like "Part of That World":

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Writing musicals

Ingrid asked this question via the Facebook Fan Page:

I'm writing a musical puppetry feature film. Once the script is complete, one big challenge awaits me: figuring out what to do with the music.

I've written most of the songs and will write the rest, but the problem is I'm not WRITING them as in transposing them onto paper. I can't. I can create songs, singing them, tell people notes to play, but I'm not a composer.
When it comes to having my script submitted, what should I do?

A) Submit without written music, just the lyrics, and if it gets picked up try to work with pro composer through the studio?

B) Or should I save up my coins and pay a composer from my city to put the music together?

I fear the latter will delay the submission of my idea by a lonnnnng time, and my idea is novel and original and I want to get it out before someone else has the same idea.

Here's where I'm going to sound like a dick, but there's really only one answer I can give:

As an outsider with (presumably) no representation, your chances of selling a musical puppetry feature are pretty much zero. It's really not even worth worrying about A or B because you're chasing a concept that is all but impossible to sell as your first feature.

Can you name any musical puppetry films from the last 10 years? Studios just aren't making those movies - except for possibly the next Muppet Movie, and that's a completely different kind of animal, a franchise.

If anyone here is able to offer contrary evidence they're welcome to comment, but that's the way I see it.

But let's say that's not a factor. I'd go with B. Having read one or two musical specs (again, by very misguided people because at least one of those was based on a pre-existing character they did not own... how it actually ended up in the agency slush pile I'll never understand) there is nothing worse that page after page of lyrics with no melody. A demo track of the songs would at least give a sense of the mood and the feel of the music - which are extremely critical when it comes to this genre.

So I'm sorry to deliver such a crushing answer. I feel like I gave you a choice between "Bad news" and "Worse news."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Interview with TV writer/blogger Margaux Froley – Part III: Staffing season, getting representation and spec pilots

Part I - School, internships and assistant jobs
Part II - The Warner Brothers Television Fellowship and working on the staff of Privileged

Today we wrap up our interview with writer Margaux Froley with a discussion about the sorts of TV specs that are currently having the most success in the marketplace.

So you worked on the rest of the first season of Privileged, but didn’t have a writing credit on any later episodes.

No… We had an order for 18 episodes and had we had 22 [the standard full-season order] I would have been 19 or 20.

And since you have a shortened season, I imagine the attitude on staff as the season winds down is “Alright, time to polish the specs and start taking meetings.”

If I was smart, yeah. I don’t think I got that at that point. I think it was a little too new for me. We finished working in January of ’09. I think we finished airing in March, but in March the CW decided to repeat the whole season during the summer… so we thought that was a really positive sign for a second season. It’s why we wrote season one with a cliffhanger, “We will not close these stories out.”

But yeah, I should have been much smarter about what came, but I was so spoiled by experience that I think I was a bit in denial about [the possibility of cancellation.] And I think the CW really didn’t have a decision until upfronts, so we really were on the fence for a while there. [In the end,] we were told we were the victim of the CW’s good development season. But it was doubly brutal to be canceled for a show like The Beautiful Life which then got canceled after two episodes. “Really? We could have done better than that!”

Since it happened so late, I assume there was less chance to interview for the next staffing season. Do you have an agent at this point?

A manager. That’s my saving grace.

Did you get the manager before or after you went through the program?

I got him at the tail end of the program. He came scouting through the program and he and I hit it off. He gets what I’m going for on the page. He sent me one of those writers’ dream letters, an email from someone you don’t know, saying “Hi, I discovered your script in a pile and I just loved it!” And I’m like “Oh my god, who is this person?” He actually didn’t want to sign me until I had original material so that’s also why I wrote that one-act. The fact he really liked that play was a big reason he wanted to get behind me for staffing. I really like the one-acts. It’s my favorite little indulgence in writing, so I’m working on a series of one-acts starting with that one and a friend in London is getting them produced.

I really took this year just to learn how to write pilots. The Fellowship didn’t really teach us about that. I think contractually it’s a sticky issue…

Then they’d own it, probably.

Yeah, there’s a very smart reason they can’t do that stuff. Writing a pilot is a very different beast than writing specs. I love to write specs – [but] they don’t help you. For staffing they will not be read.

That’s what I’m hearing and maybe I read this on your blog, so I apologize if I’m quoting you back to you.

I wanted to write a spec this year and my manager said – this is his quote – “It will not be worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Wow. So it’s all original material. If you want to break into TV, write pilots?

Yeah. Now, if you want to break into TV, the Fellowships are the best way to break in, and if you want to learn how to write TV you have to write a spec. I hope it does cycle back and specs become relevant again… What a spec is good for is so limited also, and part of that is that people are just writing original material and bottom line, you’d better blow people away.

You’ve gotta stand out in a stack of scripts. I was at a big agency last year for staffing and I know that I just got put in piles of scripts and my work didn’t stand out from those piles and I didn’t have the personal connections that would get my work to the top of those piles. Big agencies are in the volume business, so they have the clients they can slot in – but if you’re not writing some really stand-out material, I guarantee your stuff is useless.

And even with a pilot, you’ve got to have a damn good idea and execution because I’ve read some that have a threadbare idea that they spend 60 pages setting up and the story goes nowhere.

Well that speaks to the whole premise pilot thing. You can’t do the pilot about “Here’s how it all began.” Basically, [spec] pilots now are Episode 3s. The ball’s already rolling, where do you stand? Here’s a new adventure. But I still think you have to tip your hat to the origins of some sort so you’re not alienating your audience completely, but you can’t spend your time in set-up mode. Pilots can’t do that anymore. I spent a good six months having an issue with that like “How do you begin your story?” You kind of have to write the bullshit pilot and get it out of your system and then you write episode two and that’s your [spec] pilot [to send around.]

Because so much of finding a show is what you discover in building the premise and giving voice to those characters as they discover it.

And also in pilots you have to be more open to rewriting because you’re spending your first draft figuring out “Who are these people? How do they talk?” And then you can come back and obviously make them better. Writing a pilot is a different animal because you’ve got to create people as opposed to mimic people [in existing series] and that’s a different skill.

Which is different from features where you’re only telling one story with these people.

And you get to close it out. I used to only think in features and now I only think in TV. Just in terms of can you create big enough people to maintain a story, or a big enough world to maintain an ongoing thing as opposed to “This one thing happens and here’s how we solved it.” The spec [episode] is sadly a bygone thing.

So before we close this out, do you have any parting words for aspiring writers?

The reason, I started my blog was this year of writing pilots and pulling my hair out, and “wow, this is a whole different learning curve.” And I’m still on it… but I figured if I was going through the whole hair-pulling stage, somebody else probably was too. Then also in terms of my consulting stuff it’s been a very good way to keep the wheels turning and walking other people through their specs this year has kept me current on shows – and also with not being in a writers’ room this year it’s kept me speaking to writers. In consulting… I’m not nice about people’s work because that doesn’t help them.

No, I’m the same way.

That’s totally your job. There’s no growth from [polite feedback versus candid feedback]. And also there are so few people in this town who will be honest with you about your work. Agents don’t speak “Writer.” Same with managers. If you’re lucky they’ll spend time doing notes but it’s rare. A lot of people won’t bother to be that honest with you and that’s why I really like the consulting. It’s like, “Here’s the tough news that no one’s gonna tell you. Here’s how to make it better.” And for me it’s good brain teasers, so it’s been a fun process – blog/consulting.

Thanks to Margaux Froley for all her time, and if you haven't checked it out yet, go visit her blog at "This is Your Pilot Speaking."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Interview with TV writer/blogger Margaux Froley – Part II: The Warner Brothers Television Fellowship and working on the staff of Privileged

Today we continue our chat with Privileged writer and "This is Your Pilot Speaking" blogger Margaux Froley, starting with a look at the Warner Bros Television Workshop Fellowship.

Part I - School, internships and assistant jobs

So getting back to the WB TV Fellowship, could you take me through the process that happens once you’re accepted?

The Fellowship is like TV Grad School in six months, one night a week for about six months. They spend the first couple weeks, maybe two months, telling you here’s what you need to know, here’s how you break down a show, practice pitching, how many storylines you need to have, things like that. That was in ’07. The Fellowship has evolved – my year we could pick whatever spec we wanted to write and now you have to choose among selected shows.

Shows connected to the program?

I believe they’re Warner shows, and I don’t know if that’s the current model so be careful quoting me on that. I chose to spec Gossip Girl – literally at the third episode of Gossip Girl I said “I’ll spec that thing.” One of the Warners execs tried to talk me out of it [because it was so new and might not last] and I remember saying to him, “If this show is as big as I think it’s gonna be, there will be other [shows] like it that will follow.” And at the time, Gossip Girl’s commercials were Clearasil and cell phones. Trust me, that doesn’t go out of style. Those people will always be selling something on TV.

And the CW’s bread-and-butter is something like Gossip Girl.

Totally! And that wasn’t even a hit at the time to be the signature of the network that it became. But One Tree Hill just will not die.

As I have said on the blog recently. You can’t bury the thing.

It won’t die! I wrote on my blog that it’s like the Law & Order of the CW. That show’s amazing. I’ve never seen it, but god love it.

They’re survivors. It’s got passionate fans who watch it seriously and my hat’s off to the executive producers.

Those numbers don’t dip, man.

They have the last laugh. I can throw stones all I like but it’s still on. But to get back on track, you go through all of that and…

[After we] pick a show to spec, the Fellowship divides us into smaller groups. There were 12 of us – three comedy and nine drama – so we got broken into groups of four and we all really work with each other on the writing. We had Christmas break to write our first drafts. I remember being in Tahoe pulling out my hair, my family and friends are having a great holiday and I was at home trying to learn out to write.

“I need a Jenny story, dammit!”

I read all the books, I was really into it. Then the four of us helped each other on our scripts and we were judged on how well we critiqued others as well as our writing. They talked about [writers’] room stuff… but it doesn’t prepare you. Four people – it’s not simulating a room… and I think every room is different. My husband’s a poker player and I really think there’s like a poker skill that relates to writers’ rooms. You’ve gotta get good at sizing up the table, knowing people’s positions, knowing how to read people… When I got on Privileged the biggest lesson was just to “shut the fuck up.” It’s the smartest thing you could do.

Don’t talk just to hear your own voice.

And Privileged was an amazing supportive room where we really were not concerned about rank and title, but you don’t pitch your shit ideas just to get something out there. But learning when to shut up was one of the most important skills. I was happy I learned that one early.

So how do they place you on writing staffs at the end of the Fellowship?

A lot of it is behind the scenes, but at the end of the Fellowship they kind of see where you’re at, which shows your work is best for. At the time I was on the comedy track. I met on the Bernie Mac [pilot] that was looking positive that year. It was actually one of my first good meetings. It didn’t get picked up and then Bernie Mac died that summer. A good last pilot on his way out, that’s for sure. I met on Spaced, which I thought was gonna be a good little pilot, but sadly didn’t go either.

So I was not at all keyed up for any of the dramas, I was stuck in the comedy realm and the comedy showrunners really didn’t want Fellows because it was a new regime on the Fellowship so they had to do a lot of proving themselves. They weren’t exactly keen on nobodies in their rooms – even though you’re free.

And just so I’m clear, what’s the timeline of this? Spring of 08?

No, this April-May. It’s a pretty quick shuffle at that point. At the time I didn’t have any original material. Everyone else in the Fellowship had multiple scripts in their back pocket. I got in on my first spec, and then wrote one in the program so I was really just bullshitting my way through at that point. It’s why I wrote my first play actually – I was just desperate for original material and I wasn’t gonna have time to write a pilot. A one-act play seemed like the quickest way to generate 20 pages of original material. I wrote that in a week or two in late April, just a “Hail Mary.” The drama people in the Fellowship were ahead of me when Privileged was going and my mentor at the time was a great executive and he helped me get in that pile and another friend from the Fellowship knew Rina Mimoun somehow, so I managed to get in that pile. I think Rina passed on a couple other Fellowship people. She liked my Gossip Girl, so… it was just luck, man. I got to meet with Rina and she was brilliant and we hit it off.

And were you familiar with her earlier work?

No, not at all. I was familiar with her in a funny way because the year before I had done a pilot with Shana, Shana’s husband also had a pilot at Warner Brothers and Rina had cast a bunch of people that he wanted, so internally we spent a season being “Oh this Rina Mimoun! What is she doing taking our good actors?” She made a great pilot that year too and nobody’s pilot went. I can’t say enough good things about Rina. She really taught me how to write TV, but is just a lovely person.

How does Rina run the room? Is it one of those things where she’s clearly the boss, or is it a more democratic way?

Rina had a very clear idea of what she wanted. It’s a serialized show, so [it would be] “here’s the arc we’re going to cover” or “I want the romance to blossom by this time.” At that point she was on-set and had a lot going on so we really had a lot of time in the room without her and I think in that sense it was really democratic because we’re all just trying to make a good show.

[After we’d break an episode] Rina would ultimately put everything up on the board and be the final voice on fleshing the episode out. As a group, I remember feeling everyone contributed to an episode and I don’t remember who gave what idea because it all really came together as a group. Every piece of the group was relevant to the final ideas, and again, Rina was a dream captain for all of that.

I meant to ask, does the program make an effort to put you on first season shows?

I think it’s just whatever’s available. With first season shows I think you have a bigger chance because there are so many positions. On already established shows, those assistants are getting to write, so you’re competing against that.

I guess the advantage of coming in first season is that you’re not “the new guy.”

Everyone’s the new guy, yeah. I don’t know what it would be like to go on a show that’s already been around because it seems intense in a different kind of way. It sounds scary.

Your episode was the 11th episode that season, so you had the chance to see everyone go before you. How does that work when it’s your turn?

I think I was literally the last [writer] to get an episode assigned. Everyone had gone once and then it was my turn because I was totally the bottom guy on the totem pole. We knew that my episode would be that one, but we didn’t know what the story would be until we got there. So my episode, as luck would have it, turned out to be a very sweet episode about all these blooming romances.

We all broke it as a group. I wrote the outline and a first draft and then some of the mid-to-high level writers did a first look at my first draft before I bothered Rina with it. My episode was a weird one where in outline form things worked and then on the page we were like “oooo… some story stuff got weird.” Then Rina and I split up some storylines in terms of tackling some bigger changes. I was just there to learn, shut up and be rewritten. Ultimately I think a fair amount of my stuff stayed in there but it was a very interesting experience.

And this late in the season are you cutting it closer with the deadlines?

We always did a really good job being on time. We never had any 3am nights. It was always kind of a 10-5 workday and very rarely did we need anything more.

You are so spoiled for your next job!

It ruined me. And to double it, I live in Larchmont and we shot at Paramount so I’d walk to work… We’d break at 5:30, 6:00 maybe if we were crazy, and I’m home at 5:35. It was awesome. I got to go home during lunch sometimes… stuff like that. I’m totally ruined [for the next show I work on.]

So since so much of your stuff survived into the episode, does it feel like something you wrote when you watch it?

Yes and no, because… it’s not my voice. I know the storylines I contributed over the season. I know some arcs I came up with. I have a hard time pointing to it and going “that’s my line” because it all becomes part of the process… I have no ego about it. It was neat to have my credit and see my name on screen. That was kind of a highlight.

My episode had the big Christmas tree thing, it was like this romantic gesture and I remember coming up with that. I feel like you’d have to have a pilot of your own to really feel that ownership completely.

You mentioned that some stuff worked better in the outline than in the script. What caused it?

I think it was because we had this sensitive storyline with Anne Archer and Michael Nouri, so we had this older generation storyline compared to the young girls and it was more about balancing out a big secret versus revealing and then where the characters were at that point, and my episode was the second half of a “To Be Continued…” episode so part of it was “Have we serviced finishing the storylines in the right way?” In outline it seemed good, on the page it might not have been as big a reveal as we thought… stuff like that.

Part III - Staffing season, getting representation and spec pilots

Monday, May 17, 2010

Interview with TV writer/blogger Margaux Froley – Part I: School, internships and assistant jobs

One of the more coveted ways to break into television writing is the Warner Brothers Writers’ Workshop – a fellowship program whose alumni include Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry and My Name is Earl creator Greg Garcia, as well as fellow blogger Margaux Froley of the TV writing blog “This is Your Pilot Speaking.” A 2008 Fellow, Margaux went on to be staffed on the first season of the CW’s Privileged. Last week, Margaux was generous enough to sit down with the Bitter Script Reader for a chat about her writing history, the experience of being in the program, and her time on staff.

I saw in your bio that you were at USC. Is that where you decided you wanted to be in writing?

I wanted to be a writer since I saw Pulp Fiction, so since my freshman year in high school. Pulp Fiction was the movie that I went “Oh! Somebody wrote that!” So I was on the feature track since I was 13. When I was at USC, I did the film theory/critical studies track over there, which I think made me a better writer because it was like “How do you tell stories? How do you move your audience?”

Yeah, you need to have that basic foundation.

And I never would have studied that stuff on my own… and I really feel like that was the best thing I could have done. Knowing inside and out how Hitchcock scares you is way more helpful than making bad student films.

I did both. I had a professor who had a major Hitchcock fetish and the second half of one of our film courses was entirely made up of Hitchcock films.

That sounds like a summer school class I took that was all of Scorsese and Spielberg in six weeks too. It was awesome…. I had a real reckoning because in film school you study it and I was real snob at the time and only loved indies and auteurs and all that. Then USA Films was my first job out of college and I was in development and acquisitions. I got burnt out on reading scripts really quickly and I don’t have a good solution for how to fight the burnout.

There isn’t one.

And then Acquisitions I was watching really bad independent film all the time. At 21, 22, I was so jaded and over it that I went the completely opposite direction and went on a big action movie binge and went “I just need bullshit entertainment because I don’t want to think about it anymore.”

I had kind of the same thing when I was reading for someone at one company – which made mostly mainstream stuff – and she liked a lot of this indie bullshit. And she would get this scripts that had recognizable actors attached to play modern day men who dressed up as courtesans. [Basically, men dressed up as female Renaissance prostitutes.] And two pages in you know “Even if this is great, everyone above you in development is not going to want to make this film.” So why am I reading this?

USA Films was an interesting voice at the time. It was right after Traffic, and we made Eternal Sunshine while I was there, so there was a real different take on movies so it wasn’t all schlocky and indie, but all of it attracted there so you’ve still gotta weed through everyone who thinks that their garage band is a good story. And that was pre-internet. I don’t envy development execs now having to scour YouTube for it. That sounds like the same amount of drivel.

Well, it sounds like more drivel. They just have greater access to you. I had done a TV show in college a couple years before YouTube hit and before everyone was shooting digitally, and I’ve always said, “Wouldn’t it have been great to have this then? We’d have had distribution on campus!” But I’m sure everyone is doing that now so… bigger pond.

Even SC was funny. I was desperate to get into the film school and I got accepted undeclared. I spent that summer working on my first independent film and then I heard that the film school didn’t actually want people with film experience… and ten years ago that shit was a lot harder to come by and find rather than everyone just picking up a camera and making their own admissions video.

It seems like we were probably in college during a weird shift as digital technology and prosumer cameras made filmmaking more accessible. Because I got most of my education on editing with 16mm.

I was the last class at SC to use Super 8 and I love it. I wouldn’t change that for anything. Literally cutting my film and having it glued to my table to slice my film.

I did that for about two years and the last two years we were using a little more digital editing for things we were shooting on video, obviously. Of course all that film editing experience is almost useless now.

Well it’s still how you tell stories. Avid changes how you do it [but] the art is still there.

So was USA Films an internship that you got through USC?

SC didn’t help with any of that. I interned during college at Working Title Films. I finished high school in England, so I sort of spent college trying to figure out how to get back there, so Working Title was the perfect place to be. Then during my senior year I interned at USA and then a friend who got a job had to go back and finish his senior year just as I was graduating so I got his assistant job. And we’re still friends. He was like my intern buddy and still my best industry contact and he’s the only one I trust with my shitty writing and his taste has always been impeccable. Those first friendships, man.

I’ve said many times on the blog that a guy I met on my first internship has gotten me at least two jobs over the years.

I haven’t used a resume for a job for a good five years. UTA list? Pfft! Doesn’t matter.

So I assume that alumni connections haven’t played a big part in your career?

No, I didn’t make that many friends at SC… what’s funny is that I’ve made more SC friends, post-SC. We seem to have that in common [but] I don’t know that it’s gotten me jobs. I’m a bad alum. I don’t give money, I don’t go to events, so I’m sure it works both ways.

Just curious, because you always hear that the great benefit of USC is that you’re surrounded by all these people…

I don’t discount that. I haven’t personally experienced that but I will say that my friends [from USC] that I’ve met since are all really impressive people. We don’t all do the same things in the business… we’re not in positions to help each other out but I know if that ever came up they’d have my back.

There was an interview with you on the Warner Brothers Television Workshop website that said you got interested in TV writing after working as a show-runner’s assistant. What show was that on?

I worked for Shana Goldberg-Meehan. She’s a Friends alum. I worked with her on one and a half pilots. The writers’ strike was in there so that was a strange year. I was there for her development season. I was there for a pilot called The Hill. That was my first job in TV. I was excited because I thought “She’s in development. She works from home a lot. I’ll just sit in the office and work on my feature.” And then I was filing her old scripts and her Friends scripts and figured, “Well, since I’m here I might as well attempt a TV script.” So I just pulled a 30 Rock out of my butt and was like, “Throw it against the wall and see what happens,” and that was what got me into the Fellowship.

How many feature scripts had you written before that?

Three or four. Something like that. I think it takes at least three features to hit some intelligence and think about what you’re bringing to the page.

You need that many to figure out what you’re really doing.

Yeah, and I think everyone clings to that Diablo Cody thing of “Well she did it on her first one.” But she was a copy writer for a while.

And she wrote books.

She was already somebody who was already a very adept writer in her own right before she even bothered with a screenplay.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about the experience of being in the Fellowship.

Part II - The Warner Brothers Television Fellowship and working on the staff of Privileged.
Part III - Staffing season, getting representation and spec pilots

Friday, May 14, 2010

Friday Free-For-All: Seinfeld & Dawson's Creek

Today, May 14th, is the 12th anniversary of the last episode of Seinfeld. In honor of that, here are two of my favorite clips from the series:

Vandelay Industries - "And you want to be my latex salesman?"

The Marine Biologist - "The sea was angry that day, my friends... like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli."

This is also the 7th anniversary of the final Dawson's Creek. I debated for a while which clip to embed and eventually settled on this - the final scene and montage that closed the finale.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

One Tree Hill - the show that won't die

I come before you today, not to praise One Tree Hill, but to (in all liklihood) bury it. Next Monday, the CW will air the finale of the seventh season and as of yet there's been no official word about if the show will be back the following year. Given the show began the season having lost two of its four most principle characters, and with them the core relationships that launched the show, common sense would dictate that this is the end.

Or is it?

When nuclear war breaks out, I'm pretty sure the only things that will survive are cockroaches and One Tree Hill. For those not in the know, One Tree Hill is a teen drama that began airing on the WB in the fall of 2003, and then moved to the then-new CW network in the fall of 2006. Created by Mark Schwahn, the show didn't start off bad. The show was built around two half-brothers fathered by the same man, Dan Scott. Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) was the son who Dan fathered with his high school sweetheart before going off to college, dumping her, and getting his new affluent girlfriend pregnant with Nathan (James Lafferty.)

Now teenagers in the same small town high school, Lucas and Nathan might as well live in different worlds. Nathan was raised in a world of privilege, as his parents married and his mother came from money. Lucas had to make due with a single mom who struggled to make ends meet. In the pilot episode, Lucas is encouraged to try out for the school's basketball team, a move that puts him in direct conflict with his brother - already a star player in his junior year. A love triangle is evident from the first episode, as Lucas is clearly in love with Nathan's girlfriend.

As I've said before, I'm big on character-driven shows. Add that to the fact that OTH was essentially a replacement for Dawson's Creek and I decided to give it a few episodes. I have to admit that after a rough first few episodes, the show seemed to overcome its growing pains and turn into an interesting drama. Unlike Dawson's, the adult characters were well-rounded and had stories almost as compelling as their young counterparts, and despite the fact the two male leads couldn't act to save their lives, the supporting cast - particularly overachiever Haley (Bethany Joy Galeotti) and cheerleader Brooke (Sophia Bush) - were fun to watch and easy on the eyes.

If you want to see the difference a show-runner can make to a series, watch the first season and compare it to what followed. During the first season, creator Mark Schwahn was deemed too inexperienced to run the show so the network hired Mark B. Perry, a veteran of The Wonder Years and Party of Five, to shepherd the series. The writing staff he assembled included some strong writers like Mike Kelley, later of Jericho and Swingtown. Schwahn's influence grew with the second season and Perry eventually left - setting One Tree Hill on a course to being one of the most enjoyably trashy "bad" TV shows on the air.

These are just a few of the more memorable examples of the show's writing: multiple car crashes every season, instant careers in music and fashion, teen marriage, obnoxious tertiary characters who arrive and then never leave long after their stories end, a hooker hired to make Dan's brother fall in love with her so that Dan could crush said brother by making her leave him at the altar, long-lost birth mom finding her daughter only to soon die of cancer, "Who tried to kill Dan Scott?," school shootings, fratricide (committed by Mayor Dan Scott... yeah, he ran for mayor at one point), point-shaving and high school gambling, teen pregnancy, psycho web-cam stalkers, child porn sex tapes, "clean teens," psycho nannies, kidnapping, more murder, attempted suicide, and a plot that had Lucas adapt his novel into a film that was directed by a skeevy director played with relish by Dawson himself, James Van Der Beek.

This show is TV crack.

On one hand, I'm tempted to salute executive producer Mark Schwahn. Any talent deficit he has, he surely makes up for in passion for his show and its survival. Most show-runners tend to become more hands-off in later years, turning their attention to other projects as they get bored with their creations. New showrunners who follow in their footsteps often have trouble maintaining quality.

I'll give Schwahn credit for staying loyal to his show and then going to the mat for it at every opportunity. The series has always been an underdog. I recall the Hollywood Reporter story when the series hit 100 episodes, which pointed out that it barely got on the air. OTH was set as a mid-season replacement, only to get promoted at the last moment when another anticipated show proved to be unmanageable. The first two seasons the show earned a renewal by the skin of its teeth. Then, in season three it looked like a goner for sure. UPN and the WB were merging the following fall and it soon became clear that there were only a few open slots and that if One Tree Hill stayed, it would likely be at the expense of critical darling Everwood.

So Schwahn "bet on his show," ignored network requests not to end on a cliffhanger and closed the season with several characters in peril. The fans rallied and got their fourth season. Amazingly he mobilized them the following year as well, and the CW ordered 13 episodes for season five as a midseason replacement, fully expecting that to be the end. And it might have been, had it not been for the writer's strike that allowed OTH to relaunch with little competition on any other networks. They were so far ahead that once the strike ended, additional episodes the CW ordered were able to be produced and aired without missing a beat. Ratings justified a sixth season, and then somehow, a seventh.

Schwahn claims he gets little respect from the network despite all the money he's made for them. In another context, I might find it in myself to salute his dedication. He found money to keep the show going by taking product placement to a new level. The show might as well be named "Synergy" for all the external tie-ins and sponsors it's shilled for. The short-list includes not only the typical soundtracks, but also tours and "benefit albums" that were actually incorporated into show storylines. Then there have been in-your-face product placements by Sunkist and Maxim, which was part of an entire storyline when one girl posed for their "Hometown Hotties" feature (which was naturally also cross-promoted in the magazine itself.)

Take a good look because this is what all TV is going to look like as costs continue to rise. You've never seen product integration until you've seen it the One Tree Hill way.

Also, the show's debut coincided with my discovery of the wonderful site Television With Pity. I probably should blame/credit TWOP with my continued viewing, as there's this morbid fascination with just how low the series could go. (I don't visit gossip sites, but TWOP regularly passed on tidbits from the set that suggest that if E! ever does a True Hollywood Story about this series, it will be a must-see.) Thus it came as no surprise to me or anyone else on TWOP when Schwahn eventually wrote himself into the show. As one reader had predicted quite a while prior to that, he played a mentor to Peyton's character, the owner of a record store she frequented.

So Mark, since I'm sure you're the kind of guy who Googles himself I just want to say "Thanks for seven years of jaw-dropping, eye-rolling, what-the-hell-are-the-writers-smoking, so terrible that it laps 'bad' and cycles back to 'Brilliantly awesomely awful,' how-the-hell-are-tweens-watching-this-show-unironcally, writing." I know you can't take all the credit; The Chad certainly did his part to make this the TV equivalent of The Room. For now, thanks for the laughs.

But if you come back at the expense of the consistently improving Life Unexpected, I swear I'll use my upcoming "Lessons from TV Episodes" series to explain why your "brilliant" school shooting episode is one of the most offensive episodes in television history.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Your first ten pages can't suck

This is something of an elementary lesson, but a random check of the slush pile shows that plenty of aspiring scribes would benefit from having this rule spelled out for them - your first ten pages often decide the fate of your whole script. If your first ten pages suck, then I decide your script sucks and I decide that you as a writer suck.

If I'm lucky, I'll come across your terrible script during a time when I've specifically sent to thin out the slush pile. Let's say agency submissions are at a high and someone is merely needed to do a cursory glance at the slush pile and make sure nothing good is being overlooked. In a case like this, I might get to read your first ten pages, decide you have no talent at all, and then toss the script guilt-free into the waste bin.

If I'm unlucky, some slimeball manager managed to call in a favor and sent in your script as an official submission. More than likely this means that some development VP is going to have to get on the phone and sound knowledgeable as he passes on it. That means I get stuck writing the coverage, which as you know, ensures I have to read the whole thing.

At this point Mr. Lazy Screenwriter is probably breathing a sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge that even though his 92-page script takes 35 pages to hit its stride, the reader is going to have to read all of it no matter what, so the slow patch at the beginning is nothing to be concerned about. Indeed, in the bowels of every screenwriting discussion board, when the matter of the first ten pages is raised, there's always some belligerent bottom feeder to say "This talk of writing to impress the reader in the first ten pages is just paranoid bullshit. They HAVE to read the whole script! It's their job! You don't have to worry about this at all!"

Wrong. Because as we already discussed, I already decided you were a hack back on p. 10. And ever misstep you make after that - and I have NEVER seen a script with terrible first pages that miraculously turned into an awesome spec later - only reinforces what I've already decided about you. Think of me like your mother - I only see what you're doing wrong.

To overcome that negativity, the script would need a truly awesome concept, solid characters and great pacing and plotting. A writer good enough to pull that off is also usually good enough to make sure his first ten pages aren't garbage.

Ergo, if your first ten pages suck, you suck as a writer.

"Screw you!" says Lazy Screenwriter. "How the fuck can you tell anything by the first ten pages of a 120 page script! You should have to read the whole thing!"

Okay Champ, let's think of it this way. It's a lazy weeknight and all your favorite shows are in reruns. Your DVR accidentally deleted that Gossip Girl marathon you were saving for when your roommate went out of town and because Netflix has decided to throttle you, you've got two full days before you get a new DVD. The internet is down because Time Warner sucks (Heh, THAT'll surely send a lot of Google searches to my page), so you can't even waste time on Facebook. You could read a book, but you're determined to just veg and eat junk food.

So you go looking for a movie that you haven't seen on cable. Lo and behold, one is starting right as you hit Showtime. You don't recognize the title and the TV Guide description is vague. Therefore, the only way you can figure out if its any good is by actually watching it.

How long do you give the movie before you decide it's not something you're interested in?

Anyone who said more than ten minutes is a liar. Frankly, I think most people would give the movie less than five.

But Lazy Screenwriter, how can you make any call about if the movie is right for you if you don't watch the whole thing?

The first ten minutes - effectively the first ten pages - can tell you a hell of a lot about the movie. You know who the main characters are, what the genre is, and probably get some decent foreshadowing of the central conflict. What's more, they give the audience a reason to keep watching.

Forget this at your own peril.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Summer movies

Summer movie season is in full swing. What summer movies are you excited about, and why?

Which films have you purely interested on a premise/plot level? When it comes to the stories that are attractive to you, what do you look for and why?

Monday, May 10, 2010

An open letter to agents

Dear agents,

Hi, I'm the Bitter Script Reader. Of course, that's not my real name. I used to be just "The Script Reader" until I had to deal with the shit you people shovel every day. Look, I get it. We're all just trying to make a living here and obviously not every screenplay is going to be genius. I get that most of you are decent guys - well, those of you not at a particular agency known by three letters that don't include either a A or an C. But here's the thing - is it too much to ask that you use some fucking common sense before sending out the latest turd from your hip pocket client?

I'll grant that there's a fair amount of what you send out that isn't going to appeal to everybody. Different buyers, different needs... I get that. I also get that taste is subjective. One person's favorite script might be another person's bore.

But here's the thing - I estimate that at least 20% of what you guys shovel is absolute drivel which you KNOW no one is going to be interested in. Half the time I think you guys lie just to get a story editor to take your submission, and the other half I think you just don't care. Within this 20% are screenplays so poorly constructed that they wouldn't make it out of the first round of a Screenwriting 101 class. Plots that go NOWHERE for 45 pages and then get resolved in trite fashions.

You know what several of these submissions I've read from you clowns this year has included?

1) A spoof movie of several films already further out of date than the most recent spoof movies to hit theatres. There wasn't a single original joke in there - aside from the fact you submitted it to a boss who doesn't make comedies!

2) A screenplay offensive on multiple levels, where the plot was mainly an exercise in having racist characters make racist remarks to the only black person they ever met. This was a comedy - but it's hard to figure out who the real butt of the joke was supposed to be: the ignorant bigots, their African-American victim, or the poor reader stuck spending 3 hours with this excrement.

3) A boring relationship story with no arc except that the main characters break up and get back together in alternating scenes.

4) A Misery rip-off that was devoted to inflicting as much psychological and sexual damage as possible on its female victim. Sure, the genre has worked before, but this was just vile. In Misery, there was an actual character arc and a point for all the torture that James Caan's character endured. Here, the script went with an edgy "downer" ending where the victim truly suffers a fate worse than death, and included acts and language that would repulse all but the most nihilistic of viewers.

5) Another nihilistic thriller about a morally conflicted hitman who takes a wrong turn after scamming his boss. I really shouldn't say too much about this one except to describe it as "Pulp Fiction meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre." I know - it sounds cool when you say it like that. Trust me, it's not.

There are a few of you chuckleheads who are so devoid of any taste when it comes to scripts that I now cringe when I see you submitted it. I'm not sure which is worse, those of you who send boring scripts with mundane premises, or those of you who seem be representing cannibalistic human-trafficking assassins who revel in writing their own autobiographies.

You do realize that at some point, someone is going to read this shit, right? Just getting some poor sap to say, "Send me the script" isn't a victory in and of itself. If you throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks all that'll do is convince people on my end that you have no idea what makes a good script different from a bad one. So wake up and do your overpaid jobs rather than screaming at your assistant for daring to nod his head in agreement when someone suggests that the agency could treat its underlings better.

Warm regards,

The Bitter Script Reader

dictated but not read