Friday, December 19, 2014

Last minute shoppers! Why not give the gift of MICHAEL F-ING BAY?

Less than a week to go until Christmas (and we're already part-way through Hanukkah), so I imagine some of you are panicking about what to get those last few people you never know how to buy for.

Why not get the film lover in your life my book Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films? The Kindle version is a mere $4.99 and you can conveniently purchase it in "Give as a Gift" mode. This is especially useful if your recipient is far away for the holidays.  It's a great little stocking stuffer.

I've heard back from a number of people who've read it and they all seem to have enjoyed it. My favorite reactions are those from readers who've said "I can't tell if you're joking or not." Reader AJ Bulldis tweeted me a reaction to that effect, then went on to say, "all in all I give MICHAEL F-ING BAY a 22/10. I will definitely buy whatever you sell next."

And don't forget that it made /Film's Ultimate 2014 Film Geek Holiday Gift Guide, as I covered here on my blog.

For a little more info on the book, be sure to check out the following round-up from my "Press Tour":

The initial announcement of my book, with instructions on how to read the e-book if you don't have a Kindle.
My interview on Amanda Pendolino's blog.
Go into the Story's Scott Myers interview with me - Part 1 and Part 2.
My appearance on the Broken Projector podcast.

All I want for Christmas is for this book to do well. Would love to wake up to find it climbing the Amazon charts this week. Once again, it's only $4.99 for the Kindle version and $9.89 for the paperback.


His movies have cumulatively earned $2.4 billion in the domestic box office, making him the second most-successful director of all time, right behind Steven Spielberg. If one gathered the top six directors in that category, that same man would be only one of the half-dozen to not also be in possession of an Academy Award: Michael Bay.

Commercial success and meaningful art don’t always go hand-in-hand, but is it possible for a filmmaker to consistently hit his mark with the audience without truly doing something right artistically? Professional critics have long taken aim at Bay’s music-video-honed visual style, full of fast cuts, moving camera shots, hot women. The internet is full of negativity and scorn for the director too, but has anyone truly given Bay’s oeuvre the benefit of the doubt?

Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films is the first-ever attempt to approach the Bay catalog from an intellectual standpoint. Come ready to find the deep subtexts and profound meanings in Michael Bay’s filmography.

EXPERIENCE – the controversial discussion about man’s relationship with God buried within Armageddon!

DISCOVER – how Pearl Harbor demonstrates that emotional truth is far more vital than strict adherence to actual historical events!

LEARN – how The Island is a pointed allegory attacking the proliferation of remakes and reboots that Hollywood produces!

UNDERSTAND – the vulnerable confession that Michael Bay offers under the cloak of a true-life Miami crime story in Pain & Gain! And much more!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

SNL destroys female character screenwriting stereotypes

When you've read as many scripts as I have, you start noticing the same sort of stock characters popping up. And when you're a writer, you've probably inevitably written some version of those stock characters.

I'll plead guilty to writing a version of the One Dimensional Female Character From a Male-Driven Comedy, brilliantly played here by Cecily Strong. (I tried giving it a few new spins in my script and as it was sort of a self-aware rom-com a few of the cliches were intentional, but... yeah... We can probably do better.) In just a few short minutes, Strong cycles through every. single. stupid. cliche of this character.

Watch it. And then write female characters that are better than this.

If the embed doesn't work, just click here for the video.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Strong performances are a fact in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is a film that at first blush appears to be a biopic of the brilliant Dr. Stephen Hawking, but soon reveals itself as being more of an examination of the relationship between Hawking and his first wife, Jane. Rather than centering on the scientific breakthroughs that Dr. Hawking was responsible for, this is much more of a story about how Hawking's deteorating physical mobility altered the relationship between he and his wife, making Jane into as much, if not more, of a caregiver than a lover.

The film spans some 25 years of Hawking's life, starting with his pre-disease life as a student at Cambridge. It's there that he meets Jane, and the somewhat awkward Hawking manages to charm her with his wit. Before the relationship can get two serious, Hawking is diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative disease that will eventually rob him of his own mobility and even the ability to speak. His doctor gives him two years to live, which shatters Hawking so much that he pushes Jane away out of a desire to spare her.

The strong-willed Jane won't hear of it, and is determined to be by his side as long as he lives. While Hawking deteriorates, he and Jane marry and have two children. Hawking, who had already been recognized as brilliant by his instructors, continues his work. He proves that the universe had been birthed from a singularity, an astounding breakthrough. The script works to make Hawking's theories as accessible as possible to the layperson, and in one sly bit of writing, calls upon Jane to essentially translate Stephen's work for the audience. That scene is an exercise in both explaining rather abstract concepts to a general audience, but also in working in Jane's personality as she delivers what could have been dull exposition.

Felicity Jones imbues Jane with a great deal of strength and stubbornness, even as leaps forward to later years expose fault lines in the relationship. She and Eddie Redmayne as Hawking have strong chemistry, and I like the subtle exhaustion and sadness we start to see in Jane as she buckles under the weight of caring for Stephen herself. It's really hard to not get blown off the screen when placed opposite a performance like Redmayne's but Jones refuses to slip into the background.

Redmayne's performance is a remarkable bit of acting. One might quip that his job is easy because he just has to sit immobile in a chair for a good two-thirds of the film. To reduce the performance to that would be to show a profound misunderstanding of just how difficult it must be for Redmayne to be as immobile as he is. It's not just that Hawking can't move, it's that his body is contorted due to the specific muscles that are contorted and relaxed. Redmayne spends much of the film bending his body in awkward positions and then having to hold it as if he has no motor function at all.

That's not even adding in the challenge that this film wasn't shot in sequence. I saw the movie at a SAG screening that Redmayne and Jones attended, and during a Q&A it was revealed that some days, Redmayne found himself playing Hawking at as many as three distinct stages in his degeneration. Charting those nuances and making sure they add up to a cohesive performance is not easy. Doing all of that, and emoting while most of the actor's toolbox has been stripped away is pretty much setting the acting degree-of-difficulty about as high as possible.

A late scene in the script (kind of a big spoiler, so be warned) is one of those moments that every writer should aspire to pull off. Stephen is preparing for a trip to America. By now he's speaking via a computer voice box. We see him watching Jane pack things in the next room, and then we notice he's typed something to say, something he has held off from sending to the voicebox.

He's going to have his nurse accompany him to America, he says. The timing of how he executes that mechanical voice is wrought with subtext. He doesn't have to say it, Jane knows what this means. In so many words, he's declared that he's leaving her. And as I describe this, I realize I cannot possibly convey the depth of emotion that these two actors bring to this moment. One can only speak through a flat electronic voice and the other somehow has to generate emotion aside that inhuman affect. The words they exchange are simple, the electricity of that moment is not.

There are ways to reveal character without big speeches. Characters can reveal emotions without big showy performances and acting histrionics. The actors bring the weight to that moment through the history they've built with those characters. You might call the moment understated, but it's also a release of everything that has been building for some time. At some point, perhaps around the Oscars, we should give this scene a thorough examination, line by line. Absorb this moment, and you'll never again over-write.

This wasn't a totally flawless film for me. I felt that the movie could have been better at delineating some of the leaps forward in time. Though the movie spans 25 years, Jones and Redmayne aren't aged too aggressively in makeup for most of it.

I also felt that the script seemed to bend over backwards to keep both Jane and Stephen relatively "clean" in their post-marital affairs. Jonathan, the man who would become Jane's second husband, was long a friend of the family before the marriage ended. From the moment he's introduced, he and Jane are played as people who definitely want to hop into bed together. They have great chemistry, but in playing that up so fast and then soon having Jane deny any romantic feelings for him, it feels like the film is protesting too much.

It's understandable that Jane and Jonathan would develop a close connection while caring for Stephen, but something felt false about the way the film tries to claim they are "just friends" until it was acceptable for Jane to move on with him. The film is less charitable towards Stephen's nurse Elaine and later second wife. From the moment she shows up for a therapy session with Dr. Hawking, Elaine looks like she can't wait to jump his bones. It's almost as if she was directed to play it like a gold-digger. As I said, there's something about it that felt false and white-washed. Perhaps this is the way that Hawking and Jane prefer to remember it.

Other nitpicky notes include my surprise we get no real explanation for how Hawking has outlived his two-year prognosis by about five decades. I'm curious what scientific reasons might be responsible for this. Also, though Hawking's fame and work are a small piece of this story, it might have been useful to better explain when and how he became so famous to the world at large. There's a point relatively early in his disease where his mentor notes Stephen is world-famous. Stephen retorts that's "For black holes, not rock concerts." As this is before his book A Brief History of Time, I was left to wonder how his work made him so famous rather than just making his theories famous.

Script quibbles aside, this really is worth seeing for the incredible performances of the leads. And when the script works, it REALLY works. I don't know if I'll be motivated to revisit this any time soon, but there's at least one scene that had me hoping I could one day write something as good.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

BOYHOOD might be this year's best film

It happens occasionally that the story behind the making of a film is so compelling and unusual that it completely overshadows the film itself. This sort of happened last year with ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW, a film that was remarkably shot covertly in Disneyworld and Disney Land by some ambitious filmmakers who were able to disguise their equipment and cast. It was daring guerrilla filmmaking at its finest, pulling off a shoot in a location known for its Draconian hand. Alas, the film's story itself wasn't quite as compelling and once the novelty of the location wore off what remained was a so-so film. That still doesn't take away from the feat the filmmakers pulled off, though.

So I don't blame anyone who sees all the praise BOYHOOD has been getting and cynically suspects that it's instigated by the film's unusual production. Beginning in 2002, director Richard Linklater assembled his cast each year for a week of filming that lasted across 12 years. The objective: tell the story of young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from age five to age seventeen. It was an ambitious idea, requiring investors to sink in money for over a decade without seeing a return, never minding the gamble that all the principal actors would remain alive and committed for a project that would span more years than most TV shows.

When I was in college, a friend of mine and I had this idea we occasionally kicked around. As fans of BACK TO THE FUTURE and its sequels, we loved the idea of making a time travel movie, but spinning it a different way. How could would it be, we thought, if we made it a story about someone coming back in time from 2012 to 2002? Imagine if we shot the "past" portions of the film starring our then current selves and then ten years later, returned to shoot the "future" versions, using green screen technology to put the two sides together in a Back to the Future part II-like way? We never really figured out much of a story beyond that, but every now and then the idea came up in conversation as a "wouldn't that be cool if..." sort of thing.

Linkletter's project was even harder, as the story he chose seemed to demand a looser narrative that would likely be adjusted and refined over the years while in progress. I'm sure he had signposts in mind along the way, but he had to be far from knowing exactly how he'd end the film, or even how he'd shoot it.

I saw BOYHOOD a while back and have struggled to find something different to add to the conversation. It's a very well-done, ambitious idea. I notice that many reviews - like this moving one from Drew McWeeny - use the film as a launching point for one's own self-reflection. It's definitely a film that provokes that kind of introspection. You can't watch young Mason grow up and not think about what it was like to live through your own milestones. Even if you're prepared for that emotional wallop, the film can still blindside you.

For me, that shock came early. I, of course, knew the film's conceit going into it, that we'd live 12 years in this boy's life. Then came an early music cue in the first segment, Sheryl Crow's "Soak Up the Sun." In my memory, that's a song very linked with my final weeks of college and my first summer out of school. It was like a kick in the balls - "This kid went from first grade to graduation in all the time I've been out in L.A!" In my head, my post-graduate time couldn't possibly have been that long, but here was the proof. It was like getting a one-two punch of nostalgia and reflection - thinking back on my own childhood AND realizing all the time I've burned in "adulthood."

Even so, much of the emotion that the film provokes is genuine and not manipulated. The film's approach gives it the freedom to abandon some of the more rigid set-up, pay-off rules of the three-act structure. Characters drop in and drop out without their stories being brought to dramatic conclusions, which makes it feel more like real life. Sometimes we just drift apart from people in our lives and there's no neat closure years later. Even mini-set-ups don't lead to expected payoffs. There's a point where Mason is warned about texting while driving. In any other film, that would be there to set-up a later scene where his phone distracts him and causes a crash. Thus, when he later drives with his girlfriend and shows her his phone, we're primed to expect a crash that never comes.

The filming approach also lead to some unintentional irony years later. In a sequence set in (I think) 2008, Mason and his father (Ethan Hawke) camp out together and chat about STAR WARS. They wonder "Do you think they'll ever make more of them?" In 2008, that seemed incredibly unlikely, so hearing their speculations takes on a new level of humor with the knowledge that Disney is already working on a third trilogy and a series of standalone films.

Though young (and eventually not-quite-so young) Ellar is rather good as Mason, Patricia Arquette rightly deserves all the praise she's been getting for how she evolves Mason's mother over the years. She's the strength in Mason's life and we get a sense of the sacrifices she makes to give her two children a good home life. The most harrowing example of this is the abusive marriage to an alcoholic professor that she finds herself in. The film perhaps gives one or two strong tells before revealing the abuse in a truly unsettling scene.

Linkletter's staging of this moment really stuck with me. Mason returns home to a partially open garage door. We can only see inside through a three-foot gap from ground to door. Mason's mother falls into frame, crying as her husband berates her. Mason has walked into the middle of a fight and sees his terrified mother, beaten and screaming while the drunkard continues his threats. We don't see the stepfather's face here, though - only his legs - and somehow that makes him even more fearsome. It reminded me of how adults are sometimes depicted in children's cartoons, shown in incomplete fashion to underscore how massive they appear to children at that age. It's a moment that proves more unsettling than a more conventionally staged outburst later in the film.

I find it interesting that once Mason's mother takes her children out of that house, we never revisit the abusive ex-husband or the two children who were step-siblings to Mason and his sister for a couple years. A more conventional film might have brought the step-siblings back for an emotional moment at graduation, but that could have easily felt false here. We're left to wonder "What happened to them? Did they get out of that situation? Did they turn out okay?"

There are other nice touches along the way. Notice how the qualities that initially attract Mason's girlfriend to him eventually become the very traits that push her away. Take in the gradual maturation of Mason's father. Most of all, notice how the moment's that serve as the film's ending could just as easily be a new story's beginning. More than anything, this is a movie that makes you feel. For both that, and the pure ambition behind the endeavor, it might be this year's best film.

Monday, December 8, 2014

WHIPLASH wields strong character work to become one of the year's best films

I've seen a number of movies lately but have fallen behind on blogging about them. This week marks my concerted effort to catch up on putting down my thoughts about some of this year's best films, starting today with WHIPLASH.

When I was growing up, it wasn't unusual for a number of the smaller Oscar contenders to not see much of a release in my hometown until after the Oscar nominations. By that point, the critical narrative had usually taken hold and had been reinforced by multiple "Best of" lists touting that year's biggest features. You can't blame critics for making noise to ensure a good film didn't get overlooked, but that same environment also is what can foster a backlash. I have this theory that one is more prone to become a disciple for a film when they're allowed to discover it ahead of the curve. There's nothing like being blindsided by a fantastic film that hasn't yet become a large part of the conversation.

But when you're on the other end of that scenario - when those disciples are the ones telling you again and again that this movie is perhaps the greatest film in several years, one that will be studied for ages - you probably walk in with a different attitude. Surely you're hoping it'll live up to the hype, but it's possibly even more likely your disposition can be summed up with two words: "Prove it."

I offer this preamble to my WHIPLASH review because I fear that this could be the film that gets tagged as being "overhyped" by late-comers. For my money, it's one of the best films of the year, capped off with a fantastic performance by J.K. Simmons as a band conductor at one of the best schools in the country. But it's also a very small-scale movie. Though there were turns in the story that came as a gut punch to me, it's much more about character than plot. Any writer seeking to learn from strong character writing (and that should be all of you) really would benefit from studying this film. Don't walk into this movie with the misconception that a film needs to be an epic in order to be one of the year's best.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a new student at the Shaffer Conservatory. Our first glimpse of him comes as he practices the drums. His work briefly catches the eye of Simmons's Fletcher. Fletcher is an imposing figure and it's clear that when he asks Andrew to show him another piece, it could be a big moment for Andrew. A few measures later, Fletcher walks out mid-performance, not even bothering to say goodbye to the young student.

But soon Andrew ends up as a drum alternate in Fletcher's jazz band, and in the first practice scene, we see just how cruel a taskmaster Fletcher can be. His keen ear detects someone out of tune and he first berates the whole band before honing in laser-like to berate the woodwind section. His wrath becomes focused on one student in particular, who first denies being out of tune and then under continued interrogation cracks and admits it. Fletcher has had enough of this boy's screw-ups and throws him out of the band.

Once the kid is gone, Fletcher confesses to the ground that that student wasn't the one out of tune, "but he didn't know the difference. And that's just as bad."

Fletcher berates, intimidates and humiliates his students on a regular basis. When three candidates for the top drum spot each fail to perform a piece to his satisfaction, he keeps them there for hours and hours, auditioning in succession. Each performer gets but a scant few seconds before Fletcher stops them and let's loose a tirade about how pathetic their work is. They keep drilling again and again until they're all ready to break down. Their fingers are literally bleeding, they've been practicing so hard, in a sequence that makes the audience almost want to drop in empathetic exhaustion with him. Eventually Andrew is the one who earns the coveted spot.  (And it should be said that Teller appears to have some serious chops as a drummer.)

At times, Fletcher seems to be as close to pure evil as any character J.K. Simmons has ever played, and that's saying something considering he's played murderous Nazi bastards at least twice! But one of the film's sly-est moves is that now and then we get a small hint that there's perhaps a tiny bit of compassion behind him. A late phone call unnerves him in one scene, giving a tiny crack in Fletcher's armor. As Andrew attempts to confront him, he's rebuffed with an angry "not now!" that feels far less controlled than Fletcher's usual outbursts. The next day in practice, an unusually sedate Fletcher speaks of a young student he had who showed a lot of promise, saying that the man was killed in a car accident the day before.

It's as shaken as we've ever seen him and movie formula would mark this as the moment that hints at a more likable side. It's reinforced by a short exchange we see between Fletcher and a former student, who greets him warmly. Fletcher shows some familiarity with the man's daughter, and audiences would be forgiven for assuming this might be the turning point into a story about how Fletcher is deep down a good guy, that he just pushes his students hard because he cares.

I'm sure you can chart that particular storyline. Likely something would happen between Andrew and Fletcher to force Fletcher to show the young man some compassion. Perhaps Andrew quits and Fletcher shows up at his apartment door, telling him he's one of the best he's ever seen and that everything he did was because he cared about Andrew. Maybe they even have a heart-to-heart over a milkshake, where Fletcher can reveal some vulnerable secret and both men form a life-long bond that ensures Andrew will always look back on Fletcher as the greatest teacher he had, both in music and in life.

Uh, yeah. That's expressly NOT the movie we get. I'm going to discuss the rest of the film in fairly broad strokes so as not to ruin anything, but if you have any desire to stay utterly unspoiled, get out now.

There's a part of me that suspects we're deliberately fed those cliches to trick us into letting our guard down so that the third act can blindside us. There are moments where it appears things might play out as I suggested above. Fletcher even discusses his teaching philosophy, saying "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job.'" He believes that when mediocrity is coddled with obligatory praise, the artist stops trying to push themselves. He relates a story about Charlie Parker and how a dissatisfied band leader once threw a chair at Parker for a comparatively minor mistake. Fletcher points out that Charlie never made that mistake again and having to learn that lesson pushed him to become one of the greatest jazz legends who ever lived. Without that motivation, he might never have done it.

It's a very revealing speech for Fletcher's character, just one of many excellent character bits. Simmons inhabits this character so fully that he absolutely should be nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, and right now he'd be my pick to win.

I don't want to reveal too much about the third act, except to say that even as Andrew lets his guard down, the audience is probably screaming at him to run like hell. Removed from the situation, that's an easy call to make, but Teller makes it understandable that Andrew's trusting nature makes him easy prey. Deep down he not only wants to believe the best of Fletcher, but he craves his respect and approval too. Teller - whom I also loved in The Spectacular Now - also does good work here, by the way.

All I'll really say about the final act of WHIPLASH is that when Fletcher is given occasion to say "How fucking stupid do you think I am?" my blood ran cold.  If you've ever had a teacher or a mentor who appeared to be composed mainly of pure malevolence, yours will too.

WHIPLASH is one of the best films I've seen this year from a purely character standpoint. It's a small, seemingly simple story, but boy does it pack a punch.

Friday, December 5, 2014

TV Writing Resource Week - my interviews and other blogs

For the final day of TV Writing Resource Week, I thought I'd compile several resources from around the web.

Let's start with our old friend, Jeffrey Lieber, who's currently a showrunner over on the successful NCIS: New Orleans. I'd never watched an NCIS before, but I gave this one a shot to support Jeff and I'm really enjoying it. It's a fun show and it's always great to have Scott Bakula on TV.  Lieber is also the creator of Miami Medical and has worked on The Whole Truth, Chase, Pan Am and Necessary Roughness.

If you've followed Jeff on Twitter (and there's no excuse not to be), you've probably seen his on-going series of Showrunner Rules, handily archived by Go into the Story. There's 200 here and in recent months, Jeff has been tweeting more rules that have yet to be added to the archive.

I interviewed Jeff Lieber a while back on my video channel. You can check out all six parts below:

And while you're there, check out my massive 13-part interview with Liz Tigelaar. Liz got her start as a writer's assistant on Dawson's Creek, she went on to join the staffs of several successful TV shows, including American Dreams, Kyle XY, What About Brian, Brothers & Sisters, Dirty Sexy Money, Once Upon a Time and Revenge. She was also the creator and show-runner of the CW's Life Unexpected.

My interview with her covers a lot of ground, including how she got an agent, how she landed her first jobs in TV, the development of Life Unexpected and working on the staff of several other shows.

As we're reaching into the wayback files, don't miss my Robert Levine interview. I interviewed Levine waaaaay back in early 2010 when he was a mere staff writer on Human Target, coming off of stints on Jericho and Harper's Island. These days you might know him as the creator of Starz's Black Sails, which recently got picked up for a third season.

Ken Levine's blog - Probably one of the more prolific bloggers among the professional writer set. On any given day, Ken could tell old war stories from FRASER and CHEERS, or drift into writing anecdotes in general. And then for variety, he'll throw in a few stories from his radio days or wax about his time as a sports announcer. This is a daily must read.

Jane Espenson blog archive - This is no longer active, but newcomers to the archive will find no shortage of great advice from the woman who made a name for herself on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and who more recently has created Husbands and been a writer on Once Upon a Time.

And for you twitter types, Indiewire just put together a fantastic article on the best writers rooms to follow on Twitter.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

TV Writing Resource Week - Books about writing for TV

I just confirmed via an Amazon search that there is no shortage of books offering advice on TV writing. Much like with screenwriting books, it's really easy to get lost in the weeds with these. It's important to never take any book's advice as total gospel and to run as fast as possible from any book whose sales pitch is primarily "Here's how you get rich in TV!"

So in this post, I'm not looking to spotlight any books that a focused on the mechanics of writing for TV. I know they're out there, but a dozen different books can tell you the format, or you could just track down a script from one of the shows you really like. I'm much more interested in pointing you towards books that pass on some practical experience, war stories, if you will. If you want to work in TV, it's probably a good idea that you understand the kind of environment you're crawling into.

I'm fortunate enough to live near a very good library. I've almost never paid for a screenwriting book and I've almost as rarely paid for a "how to write for TV book." My first advice would be to see what tomes your local library has in stock. I don't have time to read them all, so likely there are some really good books that I won't reference below.

For a first-person look at breaking in and working on staff: Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek.  Jeffrey Stepakoff traces his career in television, starting with breaking in in the '80s, up to the time he was on staff during a critical season of Dawson's Creek. He's retired now, so don't expect much insight that's specific to the current TV landscape, but there's a lot of knowledge to be gleaned from his war stories.

A memoir from a man who co-created one of the most successful sitcoms of the modern era: You're Lucky You're Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom. This is Phil Rosenthal's account of the creation and maintenance of Everybody Loves Raymond. It's been a while since I read this one, but I remember it being an interesting look at modern TV production through the eyes of a showrunner.  I didn't even watch Everybody Loves Raymond and this one kept me in.

Another memoir about becoming a working writer when your first gig was on one of the most successful shows in TV: Conversations With My Agent. Rob Long got his start on Cheers. After that, it was a fight to make sure it wasn't all downhill. As the book copy says: Getting from pitch to pilot is a tricky path to navigate successfully, from making non-negotiable changes and deal-breaking edits, combined with accommodating the whims of studios, networks and agents, often the finished product ends up a long way from where the script-writer started. With the help of his agent, her constant demands, monstrous salesmanship, brutal irony and unswerving loyalty, Long's career fluctuates from wannabe to player, from award-winning script-writer to burnt out has-been.

To better understand the business of TV: Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of The WB and UPN. I've raved about this one before, and I consider it a remarkable look at the sorts of pressures faced by a fledgling pair of networks and how that comes to bear creatively on their shows. Network executives are often demonized as soulless "suits" out to maliciously destroy a show's uniqueness for the sake of the bottom-line, but co-author Susanne Daniels is not one of those. For my money, Daniels is one of the sharper execs out there and this book is a total steal at $.99 on Kindle.

The best behind-the-scenes episode and production guide there is: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion. I'm cheating a bit because this one is out of print, and as you can see, used and new copies command a pretty high price. Still, you might find these in second-hand bookstores. This is nearly 800 pages of information about the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Each episode is covered in-depth, with plenty of quotes and insights from the writing staff. It really gives you a sense of how a story takes shape and might go through multiple iterations before finally making it to screen.  Most episode guides focus mostly on synopsis and trivia, but this is a book that really digs into the creation of each episode and the evolution of longer arcs. I wish every TV show was dissected as in-depth as this book does for DS9.

If you have any suggestions, please add them in the comments. Please try to keep the suggestions in the spirit of books that are either written by people who've worked in TV, or books that focus strongly on the craft of writing, not the mechanics.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

TV Writing Resource Week - The Nerdist Writer's Panel

Let's continue TV Writing Resource Week with another free resource - The Nerdist Writers Panel podcast.

Like Children of Tendu and Showrunners, this is another forum to get the straight shooting on TV writing straight from the horse's mouth.

The Nerdist Writers Panel series is an informal chat moderated by Ben Blacker (co-creator of the Thrilling Adventure Hour; writer for Supah Ninjas, Supernatural, among others) with professional writers about the process and business of writing. Covering TV, film, comic books, music, novels, and any other kind of writing about which you'd care to hear. Proceeds from the live panels benefit 826LA, the national non-profit tutoring program. 

You'll recognize several guests on the show as people who've appeared in the earlier podcast and documentary I pushed this week. Episodes generally run a little over an hour, with a panel of three guests in most cases. There's a lot of "how did you break in" talk as well as plenty of behind-the-scenes tidbits from writers as varied as Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan and Enlisted's Kevin Biegel and Mike Royce

Rather than blather on, I'll just give links to a host of my favorite episodes:

Dana Gould (The Simpsons); Liz Tigelaar (creator, Life Unexpected); Robert Hewitt Wolfe (Alphas).  

Vince Gilligan (creator, Breaking Bad); Julie Plec (developer, Vampire Diaries); the return of Josh Friedman (developer, Sarah Connor Chronicles) and Jeff Greenstein (Desperate Housewives; Will and Grace).

Jane Espenson (Once Upon a Time; Husbands; Buffy; Caprica) and Douglas Petrie (Charlie’s Angels; Buffy; Pushing Daisies) 

Sesame Street

The Colbert Report

Children of Tendu hosts Javier Grillo-Marxuatch (Helix; creator, The Middleman) and Jose Molina (Sleepy Hollow; Terra Nova) and their mentors Rene Echevarria (Star Trek: TNG/DS9; Dark Angel; Medium; Terra Nova) and Naren Shankar (Star Trek: TNG/DS9; CSI; Almost Human)

Rina Mimoun, showrunner of Red Band Society and Mistresses

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

TV Writing Resource Week - Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show

We continue with TV Writing Resource Week by moving on to the perfect follow-up to Children of Tendu: Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show.

Showrunners is both a documentary film and a companion book to the documentary, written by Tara Bennett. This week I was trying to highlight resources that were largely free, but Showrunners in either form is so essential that I'm bending that rule a bit.  The book is available on Kindle, with a list price of $9.99, or in paperback with a list price of $14.95, though can you can often get cheaper prices on either thanks to Amazon discounts.  The movie is available for purchase and rental on iTunes. HD purchase runs you $12.99, but it can be rented for $4.99. (SD downloads of each are about a buck cheaper.) Access to both could cost you less than $15, so that's pretty much next to nothing.

In either form, Showrunners is a very frank, in-depth look at the art and business of running a TV show. It really drives home what a demanding job it is. Many participants speak wearily of the long hours and the heavy workflow, but most also display an awareness of how careful one must be when complaining about a job that pays so heavily. Still, we're reminded at the start that 85% of new shows fail, and an interview with a TNT & TBS executive points out that being a great writer doesn't always make one a great showrunner.

If nothing else, both references will convey just how all-encompassing the job is. I might actually favor the book, which is in the format of an oral history that has been culled from many of the same interviews that appear in the documentary. The book has room to expound on several of the interviews, though the documentary sets itself apart by taking us into several writers' rooms, along with showing us some of the showrunners working on set and meeting fans at Comic-Con.

If Children of Tendu demystifies the process of working on a TV writing staff, Showrunners pulls back the curtain on the top job. We get a few writers talking about how they got their start. Several of them discuss how they sold shows and dealt with the network and actors as part of the creative process. It's a look at the top job in TV, straight from the horse's mouth. The stable of interviewees includes:

J.J. Abrams (Alias, Felicity)
Matthew Carnahan (House of Lies)
Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus)
Jane Espenson (Husbands)
Hart Hanson (Bones)
Mike Kelley (Swingtown, Revenge)
Robert King & Michelle King  (The Good Wife)
Damon Lindelof (Lost)
Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica)
Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory)
Ray Romano & Mike Royce (Men of a Certain Age)
Shawn Ryan (The Shield)
Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy)
Janet Tamaro (Rizzoli & Isles)
Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse)

And many more!

Buy the book on Amazon here.

Purchase the film on iTunes here.

Monday, December 1, 2014

TV Writing Resource week: Children of Tendu podcast

This week is free TV resource week on the blog. I'm pulling together a comprehensive guide of all the things that any aspiring TV writers should be taking advantage of. The cost of anything I cite will be nothing or "next-to-nothing."

First up is a podcast I discovered about two months ago called Children of Tendu. If you want to work as a TV writer, this podcast is utterly essential. There's no other way to put it. If you haven't started listening to it, you're already behind the curve.

The show is hosted by Javier Grillo-Marxuach (creator of THE MIDDLEMAN, writer/producer LOST, HELIX, MEDIUM) and Jose Molina (AGENT CARTER, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, THE X-FILES). What they have put together is possibly the most detailed, piece-by-piece breakdown of what it means to be on a writing staff, what the day-to-day work is like, how to be the kind of staff writer your showrunner wants, what to do and what not to do.

A running theme of the podcast is "don't be an asshole." There's a great deal of emphasis on how one "serves at the pleasure of the showrunner" and that there's no way around the necessity of being collaborative and easy to work with. Both men are candid about how they themselves have broken this rule early in their careers when the didn't know any better. Jose recounts a cringe-inducing moment when he responded to a showrunner's story pitch with, "Doesn't that seem a little desperate?"

I don't see too many places where the politics of being on a writing staff are laid out so thoroughly and not only should this podcast be a wake-up call to every writer who shoots me an email pleading that they think TV writing is the place for them despite their total introversion or dislike of having to compromise their singular vision. I'll put it this way, if the mere thought of taking general meetings fills you with paralyzing fear, working on staff isn't the place for you and this podcast will make it abundantly clear.

Among the other topics discussed are dealing with your agents, staffing season, your first script, what all those producer titles mean, how to accept notes, and dealing with actors. They also bring in former showrunner bosses from time to time, such as Naren Shankar (CSI), Rene Echevarria (DARK ANGEL, MEDIUM) and Michele Fazekas & Tara Butters.

Like me, Javi and Jose worship at the altar of the great (and sadly departed) Michael Pillar, showrunner of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and co-creator of STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE and STAR TREK: VOYAGER, and one of my professional idols. Pillar gave a great many writers their first shot, and the writing staffs of his TREKS were filled with first-time writers who now are among the most successful showrunners in TV, including Ronald D. Moore (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA), Brannon Braga (SALEM, TERRA NOVA), Bryan Fuller (PUSHING DAISIES) and the aforementioned Naren Shankar and Rene Echevarria. Piller's name is invoked a lot, and this'll have you often rushing to rewatch TNG episodes, which is never a bad thing.

The podcast currently consists of 13 episodes, plus one "Christmas Special" and a crossover with the Nerdist Writer's Panel. If you're motivated, it shouldn't take much to catch up. Javi and Jose say there'll be more episodes once they go on hiatus from their current staffing gigs, so there's no time like the present to catch up!

Children of Tendu website -

On Twitter

Javi Grillo-Marxuach on Twitter

Jose Molina on Twitter