Friday, November 17, 2017

MasterClass series adds six new classes, including Ron Howard and Steph Curry AND an incredible deal!

I hate doing posts that sound like commercials, but I feel a little less like a shill when I know I'm promoting something that you all would enjoy. If you've followed the blog for a while, you might recall I've done some reviews of the MasterClass video series. Specifically, these offerings:

Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting (My review here.)
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (My review here.)
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing (My review here)

I found value in each of the classes. Though the Hoffman one was geared for actors, it gave me a lot of really useful insight from a directing standpoint. The highlight of the Sorkin one was seeing how he ran a writers' room and interacted with students playing the part of staff writers. The Mamet one was less revelatory for me but would have been more than adequate as a Screenwriting 101 course.

Earlier this week, MasterClass made two announcements. First, they've added six new classes and one of them is Ron Howard Teaches Directing.

Ron Howard? THE Ron Howard is doing one of these? The Academy Award-winning director of A Beautiful Mind? The director who SHOULD have won for Apollo 13? Ransom, Frost/Nixon, Drive, Willow, and the upcoming Star Wars Story Solo?

This is the part where I usually say "Shut up and take my money!" With the other classes, the cost was $90 a class. MasterClass has introduced what they call the All-Access Pass. If you purchase that, you have unlimited access to ALL of their classes at the cost of $180 a year. They have a total of 27 classes, so if you watched all the classes, it works out to about $7 a class. (That likely would require you to binge the classes and not follow the weekly schedule - which is doable.

For me, there's probably about 10 classes I'd be into so that comes out to $18/class. Maybe the best way to look at it is that for the cost of two classes, you can check out all of them, so if there are more than two that appeal to you, I'd go with the All-Access Pass.

My one regret is that I won't have the time to check the Ron Howard class out and review it for you before the holidays because I would love to be able to tell you that it's worth it or would make a good gift. If it's up to the standard of the three classes I have seen, I don't think you have anything to worry about.
Also included in the new classes are:

Stephen Curry Teaches Basketball
Helen Mirren Teaches Acting
Wolfgang Puck Teaches Cooking
Marc Jacobs Teaches Fashion Design

(They're big on cooking classes at MasterClass. You'll find a few more on the website.)

The remaining roster of classes includes:

Martin Scorsese Teaches Filmmaking (SCORSESE has one of these?! How did I miss that?)
Christina Aguilera's MasterClass
deadmau5's MasterClass
Jane Goodall Teaches Conservation
Garry Kasparov Teaches Chess
Herbie Hancock Teaches Jazz
Shonda Rhimes teaches writing for TV
Gordon Ramsay teaches cooking
Steve Martin teaches comedy
Hans Zimmer teaches film scoring
Reba McEntire teaches country music
Werner Herzog teaches filmmaking
Serena Williams teaches tennis 
Usher teaches performance

With the holidays coming up, maybe one - or all of these - would make a good gift for someone you know.

If I get around to watching the Ron Howard class, I will absolutely review it here at a later date. That's my promise to you. I don't think ANY amount of mentoring from Christina Aguilera will make my singing voice tolerable, though.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

If you want to work in TV, you should be following this ONE TREE HILL story

For the last month, there's been an increased awareness of sexual harassment in the industry, fallout from the numerous victims of sexual assault who've come forward against Harvey Weinstein. The domino effect has been astounding.

Late last week, Variety published a story where 19 former and current employees of Warner Bros alleged misconduct from Andrew Kreisberg, the executive producer of The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. Warner Bros has suspended Kreisberg pending an investigation, and Variety's article went on to discuss numerous instances of abuse and disrespect Kreisberg had shown his staff. It represents the worst kind of experiences one can have working in TV.

This abuse had gone on for so long in part because the staffers who endured it believed there was no way to come forward without risking not just their jobs on the show, but their careers in general. Given that, it's remarkable that NINETEEN people spoke up, even with the protection of going unnamed.

It was that bravery that motivated Audrey Wauchope to speak up on Twitter over the weekend. In a series of tweets you can find here, she detailed the sexism and harassment she endured from the showrunner on her first staff job. Though she didn't name the series, it was evident to anyone who looked up her IMDb page that she was talking about One Tree Hill and its showrunner Mark Schwahn.

Monday, Variety published a statement from 18 women who worked on the show, including original stars Hilarie Burton, Sophia Bush, Bethany Joy Lenz, almost all the other female regulars and several writers and crew. Their statement read, in part:


All of the female cast members of One Tree Hill have chosen this forum to stand together in support of Audrey Wauchope and one another. To use terminology that has become familiar as thesystemic reality of sexual harassment and assault has come more and more to light, Mark Schwahn’s behavior over the duration of the filming of One Tree Hill was something of an “open secret.” Many of us were, to varying degrees, manipulated psychologically and emotionally. More than one of us is still in treatment for post-traumatic stress. 

Many of us were put in uncomfortable positions and had to swiftly learn to fight back, sometimes physically, because it was made clear to us that the supervisors in the room were not the protectors they were supposed to be. Many of us were spoken to in ways that ran the spectrum from deeply upsetting, to traumatizing, to downright illegal. And a few of us were put in positions where we felt physically unsafe. More than one woman on our show had her career trajectory threatened.

All of this is preamble to the post I really want to bring to your attention. All of the previous stories played out in the trades (or, like Wauchope's tweets, were republished on one of the trade sites) and were easily discoverable. This blog post from former One Tree Hill writer David Handelman is probably going to have fewer eyes on it. Handelman wrote for the show in season six and he elaborates a little bit about the toxic work environment that Wauchope described:


So it was very hard to go up against him. And most of the other writers in the room were in similar positions -- they'd started out as assistants and been promoted over the years, and owed him everything. Writers were sequestered from set, unlike most shows, so they had no relationship with the cast and crew, and at the end of each season he told the writers there was no guarantee they'd be back, creating a culture where you were anxious to keep your job. Same thing with the cast, who were plucked from relative obscurity (except for Chad Michael Murray) and suddenly had that most elusive thing for an actor -- a steady gig.

To be clear, the room was hardly a daily terror -- we shared a lot of laughs, exchanged Christmas gifts, and socialized. Schwahn at times could be funny and kind and even self-deprecating, cared deeply about the show and liked mentoring people, and actually let them write a lot of their scripts -- not as common as you might think.

But that whole ethos -- "I can do what I want, and you all owe me" - had its dark side. One of the writers began dating a guest actress, and soon lost favor with Schwahn. When the lead actors were in L.A., they'd stop by the office to meet the staff, but the actresses never did. There was lewd talk, requests for backrubs. One writer kept her private life super private from all of us for fear it would diminish her currency with Schwahn.

It was horrible for women, but created a bad work environment for everyone. You never knew when The Boss would be angry. 

It's an unusually candid look at the darker side of writing for TV, especially when taken in conjunction with Wauchope's account. One detail that jumped out at me was the mention that the writers weren't allowed to go to set. That's a red flag for an insecure boss. On most shows, the writer goes to set for the production of their episode. (Or at the least, a member of the writing staff is sent to "cover set" for the episode, whether or not they wrote it.) A good showrunner wants their staff to learn how to produce. A bad showrunner is threatened by them.

The solidarity shown by the One Tree Hill team is inspiring, and gives hope that it's the start of a wave that'll wipe out some bad behavior in this town. Until then, aspiring writers would do well to know the kinds of sharks that await them, and posts like Handelman's are a must read.

Monday, November 6, 2017

THOR: RAGNAROK - the bumblebee that shouldn't be able to fly

There used to be an urban legend that scientists had proven that, scientifically, the bumblebee's wings were too small to support its body. Essentially, the claim was that everything about science said that it shouldn't be able to fly and yet somehow it did. (It's since been debunked.)

I thought about that myth upon leaving THOR: RAGNAROK, which is a perfect illustration of that mythology. I enjoyed it a lot, which was rather surprising because I thought the previous entry in the series might have been the worst Marvel film ever, and even the first THOR film didn't get much above a lukewarm reaction from me. At least on first reaction, I found this more fun than either GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY feature.

But when you look at this movie analytically, you'll see that it really shouldn't work. The plot has a couple false starts and detours, including a second act that's almost wholly removed from the rest of the picture. In the hands of a lesser director an cast, this would feel like a mess. Instead, the breezy tone keeps things moving and takes the audience along for the ride, and Chris Hemsworth's hilarious performance as Thor manages to unify this patchwork film.

At the conclusion of the previous THOR movie, Thor's evil brother Loki (who was believed to have perish) was revealed to the audience as having impersonated their father Odin and usurped his throne in Asgard. As RAGNAROK begins, this switcharoo still hasn't been discovered and the audience could be forgiven for expecting that the main conflict of the film will revolve around Thor trying to defeat Loki and rescue his father.

Instead, here's the progression of events:

- In the first ten minutes of the film, Thor gets wise to the deception and exposes Loki. It seems in the three or so years he's been on the throne, Loki hasn't done anything more nefarious that producing a play that recasts Loki as the hero, and lie around having grapes fed to him.

- Thor forces Loki to take him to their father, whom Loki dumped in a nursing home on Earth. The building has been torn down, though, making this a dead end. Don't assume this means we're in for a hunt for Odin because...

- Loki gets snatched by Dr. Strange [GRATUITOUS MARVEL CAMEO ALERT], who magically sends both him and Thor to Odin. Strange is so delightfully in-character that it's not until the scene is over that we realize "Wait... did we just get deus ex machina'd?"

This all happens in about 20 minutes. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of amusing stuff along the way, but Loki's defeat and the quest for Odin both are resolved incredibly easily. Try this in an original spec and you're gonna get hit. HARD.

- Odin tells his sons he's dying, with no explanation other than it's his time. So it's not even a consequence of what Loki did. It just happens because the script needs it to happen. He warns that with his death, his evil firstborn Hela will at last be able to return to take vengeance on Asgard. (I actually don't have a problem with this seeming contrivance, but the convenience of his death happening now, with little motivation, feels like a first draft issue.)

- Hela shows up, kicks Thor and Loki's asses and disrupts their transport back to Asgard, getting both of them lost along the way. She conquers the undefended kingdom easily.

- Meanwhile Thor is captured and sold as a gladiator to the Grandmaster on Sakaar. He spends the entire second act here, eventually teaming up with a rediscovered Hulk (now Grandmaster's champion) and Valkyrie, a former Asgardian warrior in exile.

There's a lot of fun stuff on Sakaar as Thor has to convince both Hulk and Valkyrie to help him, but the Grandmaster storyline and the Hela storylines never intersect. It feels like Hela spends the second act spinning her wheels on a slow takeover of Asgard while Thor deals with his unrelated problems. Every moment Cate Blanchett is on-screen is a delight. It's a major step-up from Evil Guy Whose Name I Can't Remember from THOR: THE DARK WORLD, but there's not enough story momentum for her while Thor is stranded elsewhere.

It's a problem one barely notices since the Thor stuff is amusing. For a while, it's almost as if Hela was just a vehicle to facilitate the Thor/Hulk buddy movie. Naturally, Thor eventually convinces his friends to help him take on Hela and liberate Asgard, but beyond that there's nothing for the Grandmaster to do in the third act. What's more, what Thor needs to ultimately defeat Hela was planted in the first scene of the film, so it's not even truly something he gained through his experience.

The film tries to bind the second and third acts via some character work with Hulk and Valkyrie and it works well enough that you leave the theater with great affection for both characters. Director Taika Waititi has a wonderful sense of pace and everyone's comic timing is on point here. It's a rare joke that doesn't land and this film is packed with jokes. What can you say about a sci-fi movie where Jeff Goldblum shows up to play an alien ruler basically AS Jeff Goldblum and it doesn't feel out of place in the slightest?

This is a film that embraces the weird and the quirky but does it without self-consciously winking at the audience. (Okay, maybe the Stan Lee cameo lands with a bit of a thud, but that's it.)

Hell, they get away with a Hulk dick joke. A year ago, would you have put money on a THOR movie being able to do that and not make it cringeworthy?

A movie can get away with a lot if it leaves the audience feeling good. RAGNAROK avoids the morose pomposity that has hobbled other superhero films and gives us two hours or a rollicking good time with some of our favorite action figures, while adding some new toys to the box. (This had better not be the last time we see either Valkyrie or The Grandmaster.)

And you know what? As much as the Dr. Strange cameo shouldn't work, considering this is the 17th film in the Marvel series, it feels a lot less inexplicable to use him for plot convenience than it might have to pull something like this three or four films in. Is it an indulgence? Yes, but it feels earned to the audience because of all the time we've spent in this continuity.

Like I said, it's the bumblebee that flies when it shouldn't. It's impressive to come away really enjoying a film that quickly ditches a set-up that promises tension and takes shortcuts to put the real major conflict in play. A steady diet of these would probably lead to diminishing returns, but this is just so damn pleasant it's impossible not to get swept away by its infectious charm.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Breaking down the pilot of VERONICA MARS

Last week I did a live-tweet of the pilot of VERONICA MARS, breaking it down in terms of what's to be learned from it in terms of writing a strong pilot and establishing a show. Soon after I was done, I had two repeated requests from followers: 1) Could I archive the live-tweet on my blog? and 2) Would I do it again?

As to the first question: see below. As to the second, I'm planning on breaking down the ALIAS pilot starting at 7:15pm Pacific time tonight. You should be able to find it streaming on Hulu. You could also purchase it on Amazon or iTunes.

Below is the transcript of my live-tweet. I made a few additions and corrections, but it's otherwise as I tweeted it. If you want to see the original thread, go here.

Part of the reason I'm doing this is I used to have good notes on this pilot for my own ref and I need to reconstruct them. I'm working on a pilot that's similar in some ways so it's helpful for me to take a peek under the hood of shows that are in the same vein.

Opening scene - noirish, seedy motel. Veronica VO. Sets the mood and the tone. Cheery voice with a cynical outlook. Calculus textbook on the seat before we see Veronica is a nice visual way to tip us off that the PI is a teen. Teaser ends with Weevil and the PCH motorcycle gang pulling up. Sets up major part of the show.

2nd scene - high school "If you go here, your parents are millionaires or they work for millionaires." Important line. Veronica gets a Save the cat moment in getting Wallace down from the flagpole.

Next scene, she nails a question in class despite being half asleep. AND she gets to interpret Poe's work as "Life's a bitch, then you die." What does all this have in common? Character.

Next scene: Veronica has a "random" locker search. She's one step ahead of the principal. More establishing bits about her relationship with faculty, and the fact she's tipped off about locker searches.

Now that we have a sense of WHO she is, we get an exposition dump. Her ex was Duncan Kane, who dumped her out of the blue. Key detail for later. The VO is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, but it's entertaining, as when she calls Logan a "psychotic jackass." It's memorable.

Another important bit: Veronica not intimidated by Weevil, even with him backed up by his biker gang. We see all this in less than 7 minutes.

I'm not gonna call out every scene, but it's worth noting we're locked in to V's POV. We don't cut away from her at any point.

Ten minutes in and we get to Veronica's father's PI office. Defense attorney Cliff stops by to drop off a cup of exposition. He mentions that the local strip club has a creative way of keeping their liquor license. Remember that for later.

And then we meet V's dad Keith, just after a meeting with Veronica's ex Duncan's mother, Celeste Kane.  

Act Out on "Dad tried to send her husband to jail for life."

Act two open - Veronica and Keith. We see their dynamic. Important to show how all your main characters relate, at least to the protag.

Case of the week (or so it seems): Veronica follows Jake Kane, Duncan's father. Celeste suspects him of cheating. Backstory about how his company employs the town and how he made half the town rich practically overnight. After that, more flashbacks, and we finally reach the real mythology...

Lily Kane - Veronica's best friend and Jake's daughter - murdered. VO tells us this was a major media case. Keith was Sheriff. Investigated Jake, So the case cost Veronica her friend, and her father his career and reputation. AND it was never solved, despite a lot of public interest and publicity.

Annnd we find out that Logan was Lily's girlfriend. Keith loses his job in the scandal, but his wife leaves. Lotta emotional stakes here.

Basically, Act Two is where Backstory kicks in the door and announces its presence. It's a lot, but it's cleaner for all the intros in Act 1.

Or to put it another way, DON'T DROWN YOUR AUDIENCE IN MYTHOLOGY TOO FAST. If the pilot opened on the Lily Kane stuff we'd be lost
 
"Want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I?" Well, that's a dark line. V got roofied at a party, woke up without underwear.  Lotta flashbacks, complex timeline. You know what helps? Flashback-Veronica has much longer hair. Look for the visual things like that.

Mystery tally at the end of Act Two: 

1) Who Killed Lily? 
2) Who raped Veronica? 
3) Why did Duncan dump Veronica 

Top of Act 3: Logan taunts Veronica about her mother. We learn she left 8 months ago. Also see Logan and Duncan are buds.

Now we move to Veronica's other case of the week, helping Wallace get the PCH bikers off his ass. It's a vehicle to show the V/W dynamic. Wallace pissed off the bikers by calling the cops on them for shoplifting at the store where he worked. Police took the security tape as evidence.

Another Keith/Veronica scene, shows the kinds of cases that pay the bills (bail jumpers). She brings him up to speed on Jake Kane case. As soon as Keith sees the license plate belonging to someone who was meeting with Jake Kane at a hotel, he says to stay away from the case. Another mini mystery to generate tension.

Payoff to Veronica locker search bit: she plants a bong in Logan's locker so he gets caught. It also sets up a complicated bit I'll recap quickly. Veronica basically uses the bong to set off a smoke alarm in the police evidence locker, gives her the chance to recover the security tape that the PCH gang is mad at Wallace over.

The big note: the case of the week puts all the regular relationship dynamics on display.

ACT THREE OUT - the car VM photographed meeting Jake Kane belongs to Veronica's mom. Leeanne Mars is meeting Jake? But why?

Top of Act Four - Veronica asks Keith why he wants to drop the case. He lies. Provokes bigger question for Veronica and audience - why?

Next: Flashbacks show Veronica tried to report her rape to Sheriff Lamb. He mocked her and blew her off.

There's a bit where Veronica uses the exposition Cliff dropped earlier to set up a humiliation of Lamb in court. It also involves her recovering a videotape that gets the PCH gang off the hook, and in turn gets Wallace out of the doghouse. Basically EVERY. LINE. OF DIALOGUE came together for that moment. Not one wasted scene

Next, Logan shows up for payback, smashes V's headlight. PCH gang shows u for a "She's with us" kind of moment. Humbles Logan. Weevil beats up Logan until Veronica calls him off. So now we see V & Weevil are on the same side. Kinda. Wallace gets an apology from Weevil (somewhat forced) tying that up. 

And from there we go to Veronica back at the PI office. She breaks into her dad's safe and we learn he's never stopped working the Lily Kane case AND the hotel pic V took is in the case file. So Keith never stopped working the case, but V's VO tells us her big question is "why did Dad lie to me?"

Critical point: the big mythos mystery has implications for her current relationships. It's not JUST about who killed Lily, it's about how those revelations still can upend her life after they come out. We're not tuning in just to solve the mystery, we're going to be tracking what the investigation does to the father/daughter relationship over the season. 

It's smart because it makes the show about more than just a puzzle. You need emotional stakes to hang things on so that when that mystery goes away, there's still meat on the bone.

Last scene: Veronica on stakeout again. VO declares she will solve this case and bring this family back together. it's the "I Want."

Not one wasted scene in that pilot. Everything is pushing plot, character or both. multiple subplots AND two ongoing uber-mysteries.

Major relationships established and shown: Veronica/Keith, Veronica/Wallace, Veronica/Weevil, Veronica/Logan.

relationships mostly suggested: V/Lily, V/Logan, V/Mother.

Oh! I forgot that we also set up V/Lamb and V/Cliff. both pretty important. These 45 minutes are JAMMED with character intros. And also notable, only a few of those are meeting for the first time. we're dropped into relationships that feel like they existed for years. One lesson here: KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS. 

Seriously. It helps this is all from V's POV, but the others are pretty well drawn.

Somehow the Veronica Mars pilot juggles being plot-heavy and character-heavy. Sometimes a plot procedural will go with a simpler story just to let the characters breathe while going through it. VM is like "nah," and interweaves three subplots, possibly four.

You could pull the Lily Kane murder stuff out and you'd STILL have enough story for one episode. That's how much is packed into this.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Looking back on five years of the Black List website with Franklin Leonard - Part II

My chat with Black List Founder and CEO Franklin Leonard continues.

Go here for Part I.


Looking back over these five years, can you think of any instances where the site's achievements exceeded your expectations? For example, did you think that less than two months after the launch, MCCARTHY would appear on the annual list?

There are so, so many: How quickly it happened with MCCARTHY was definitely exhilarating. The stories of NIGHTINGALE and ZINZANA spring to mind immediately. Chris Salmanpour’s career. Minhal Baig and Tom Dean participating in the labs and then ending up on the annual list. Seriously there are way too many to mention with too many remarkable things and people associated with them. Best bet would be to read Kate’s interviews with writers who have found success via the site.

I have to admit, I've lost count at this point of how many scripts discovered on the list have become released feature films. Five years ago, did you think you'd see a substantial number of scripts from the service produced, or did you expect the site would have more success in launching the careers of writers who would see their first produced works on subsequent scripts?

I definitely expected that the site would have more career discoveries than produced movies, and that’s generally the case thus far. There have been seven movies produced in the last three years though, and all of those have premiered at film festivals like Toronto, SXSW, and the Los Angeles Film Festival. I expect we’ll start to see more, and a few produced films from writers discovered on the site with different scripts. BUBBLES, for example, was Isaac Adamson’s first script after Lee Stobby signed him after finding him on the site via another script.

I want to ask a little bit about your brief, aborted partnership with Scriptbook. In April, you announced a new service the Black List would provide is a report generated by an algorithm that would "indicates the commercial and critical success of a project, along with insights on the storyline, character analysis, target demographics, market positioning, distribution parameters [and more] prior to any made costs.” This was met with a lot of backlash from customers and professional writers alike.

Criticism of the Black List is nothing new. From the very beginning, I've seen writers accuse the site of taking advantage of aspiring writers. You've always met those criticisms head on and also reached out to people who've complained about their experience with the site. What was it about this particular criticism that struck a chord to motivate not only a complete reversal, but one that happened in a matter of days? You could have easily said, "If you don't see value in Scriptbook, you're under no obligation to purchase it." What merited going the extra mile in your response?

I really do view a significant part of the mission of the Black List as service to the community of writers. We partnered with Scriptbook because I know that many studios, financiers, and producers are increasingly deploying this sort of analysis in their own work, and I wanted to provide a best in class version of that sort of analysis to writers at a severe discount to what other parts of the industry were paying for it. I also believe that more information, rightly used, is always valuable.

Certainly, we could have continued the offering and left people to make their own decision about purchase, but the response was so overwhelming from the community – both online and from folks who I’ve previously sought wise counsel about how we can most be of service (John August, Craig Mazin, and Brian Koppelman spring to mind immediately) – I deferred to their judgment. I think it was the right decision.

I want this conversation to be mostly about the site, but with the annual list upon us, I feel like I'd be remiss not to bring up last year's LAX MANDIS PROJECT situation. I saw a lot of conversation - both on social media and in groups that I frequent - from people who felt the script should have been disqualified. I know you've said in the past that you don't think it's all that common that a script will end up on the list as a result of collusion. Has last year changed your approach at all to the annual list? Do you have anything to say to critics of the process that put LAX MANDIS on that list? What's your thought process for addressing a situation like that?

I generally prefer to address specific criticisms of the process rather than generalized critics of it. I think the important question is, why should it have been disqualified? Is it the subject matter? The author’s job? At the end of the day, I think the consequences for a script that lands on the list as a result of collusion (and I’m sure they’ve happened) are always negative in the long term. In the best case scenario, you attract attention to a terrible bit of work, and people stay away from the author in the future.

Finally, the last Black List Live reading of 2017 is upon us on November 18th. Originally these performances seemed to be aimed at reigniting interest in scripts from the annual list that maybe had grown cold. Indeed, it appears that was the case for GIFTED, which was released this year, and the reading for THE SHOWER was soon followed by Anne Hathaway attaching herself to star and produce in the film.

Recently, it seems the scripts have taken a turn towards being the more "unproducable" screenplays from the List, such as JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC. As we head into 2018, what is the objective of the Live Reads in the Black List's overall mission?

First off, I want to give an incredible amount of credit to Megan Halpern (the Black List’s Events Director), Lisa Zagoria (our casting director), and the staff at the Montalban and now the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the live reads. None of it would happen without them. And the work that Megan and Lisa put in is truly extraordinary.

The shortest answer to this question is that we want to put on great night of entertainment wherein the screenwriting and the screenwriter is the star. I don’t know that that exists anywhere else.

Originally, we were only going to do scripts from the annual list, but increasingly we’ve found scripts on the site – Noga Pnueli’s I’M STARTING TO SUSPECT MY TEENAGE DAUGHTER IS AN ALIEN FROM OUTER SPACE, Max Schwartz’s NEW COKE, and Trey Ellis’s HOLY MACKEREL – that have played incredibly well too. Honestly, we’ve been mixing things up over the last year or so on that front, and I think we’ve got a few more tricks up our sleeve, starting with November 11th’s reading. You read that right, we’re moving it up one week.

One of the many things that I never could have anticipated is the extent to which absolutely incredible actors have participated and absolutely murdered their performances. It just blows my mind that we had Parker Posey and Molly Ringwald perform a screenplay we discovered on the website at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Looking back on five years of the Black List website with Franklin Leonard

Five years ago this week, the Black List website launched as a service where aspiring writers could host their scripts, pay for professional evaluations and be discovered by industry members with access. It was the first service to incorporate all of these elements along with reputable industry access, and it built on the Black List brand originated by Franklin Leonard's yearly list of the most-liked unproduced scripts.

Over the last half-decade, the site has continued to evolve and expand its role, even as some of its competitors have closed up shop. The anniversary seemed like a good time for a "state of the Black List" check-in with Founder and CEO Franklin Leonard.


About a year after the launch, you stopped announcing every time the site led to someone being signed. I know your rationale for that is that it ceased being a newsworthy event and that since people are under no obligation to report this, you might not have an accurate count. With that in mind, do you have a sense of trends? Are the 2017 users who gained representation on a par with, say, 2013 or 2014?

Honestly, I wish we could track this kind of information more accurately, but in a similar way to the fact that it’s not news when an agency signs a client unless they’re leaving another agency, it’s not really news any more when the Black List played a part in someone getting signed. I only found out that several of this year’s annual list writers were discovered by their representatives via the site at the benefit we hosted celebrating the annual list two days later.

There are some pretty exciting stats about writers a bit further along in their careers now who found part of their start on the site: Seven movies have been produced in the last three years via scripts from writers who attribute the site to the movie’s momentum, including a Netflix acquisition (ZINZANA) and a Golden Globe nominee (NIGHTINGALE). At least a dozen writers have made the annual list who were discovered via the site, including two of the last three #1s (Kristina Lauren Anderson and Isaac Adamson) and two Black List screenwriters lab participants (Minhal Baig and Tom Dean.)

With five years of data behind you, have you made any conclusions about how the site most effectively is connecting writers with your professional users? Are the email blasts effective? Are there better results when the script recommendation comes via your Twitter? Do the Top Lists pull in a lot of attention? And are people finding ways to successfully promote themselves on the site even without purchasing reviews?

Dino Simone, Terry Huang, and Olga Vasileva continue to push the site forward and improve the effectiveness of all of these channels, and we’re constantly introducing new ones to further promote the good work that we identify. Some of those ways are small like tweeting the scripts that are included in the weekly email blasts. Some of them are larger, like new screenwriters labs for feature and episodic writers under Megan Halpern’s leadership.

That said, the biweekly featured script seems to be the most effective way to promote an individual script. That makes sense: it’s meant to be the script on the site with the most, highest ratings – a competitive position since scripts receiving scores of 8 overall or better from our readers receive as many as five free script reads for each high score.

I think that the hardest thing remains getting attention for your script without purchasing an evaluation, and that’s frustrating for us too. Still, we see roughly a quarter of scripts that don’t purchase an evaluation get at least one download from an industry professional, a number that consistently surprises me. I suspect that some percentage of those downloads are the result of screenwriters who actively promote the link to the script via queries, Twitter, etc.

I should also probably mention here that we give away a ton of free hosting and evaluations. One only need to follow us on social media, contribute to our Essential Films series on the blog, or read Scott Myers’s Go Into The Story to see opportunities to claim them.

What is the ultimate value in the Black List for the user now? Is it more of a place to be discovered by agents and managers via the email blasts, or is the value truly in competing for the many Fellowship and Partnership opportunities, such as the Verizon Go90 Fellowship, and the Michael Collyer Memorial Fellowship?

At this point, I think it’s important to think of the Black List as an umbrella organization for a number of things. There’s the annual Black List and the blcklst.com platform (and everything associated with it… the database, the partnerships, the Labs, etc.), but there’s also the Happy Hours, the Live Reads, and the blog.

Right now, we host monthly happy hours in 16 cities around the world, six annual live reads, and the blog is publishing constantly – via Kate Hagen’s amazing work as editor in chief, Terry’s terrific data work, and Go Into The Story, our official screenwriting blog. I mean, Scott Myers is the best.

All but the live reads are free, and like hosting and evaluations, tickets can be had for free with a bit of sweat equity following us on social media and the blog.

I suspect this question is specifically directed at the platform though, so I’d like to address that in depth. Honestly, there’s value on a number of fronts there, and it’s been specifically designed so that it can be. And it should since parts of it cost money.

Here’s where I think there’s value to be had:

1. Writer Profiles and Script Listing – This is probably the most underutilized part of the site at the moment, and it’s a HUGE opportunity for members of the WGA East or West and a number of other guilds worldwide. Entirely free, you can list your scripts, all of them, in our database. Title, author, logline, tagged with any of our over 1000 tags, representative and contact information, etc. The goal here is to build a Google for screenplays and pilots, so that any reputable industry professional can search for, say, “Action film with a budget under $20M with a female lead over the age of 40” or “Episodic Drama with a Latino lead between the ages of 25 and 35 with the theme of redemption” or “I’d love to find a writer with experience in the medical field” and if such a script or writer exists, they can find it and either download the script immediately or reach out to the appropriate person to get a copy of the script or connect.

2. Discovery (Representatives, Producers, etc.) – Similar to the writer profiles and script listings, industry professionals from agency assistants to producers to actors and directors are using the site to download material directly without the intermediary of a representative. Most of these writers are currently unrepresented, but increasingly we’re seeing those who are represented do the same thing to create incoming calls for their representatives. Being rated highly on the site attracts their attention to the script. It’s that simple.

3. Feedback – One of the kindest compliments I thankfully receive quite often is that a writer found the feedback they received on the site to be helpful in improving their script. Certainly, the cost is prohibitive for some – and we strongly advise everyone to push their script as far as they can quality-wise before paying for an evaluation – but our readers are quite good. And in the rare case where they fail to give you a full and close reading of your script, we want to hear about it so that we can replace the evaluation with a full and close reading and address the issue with our reader.

4. The Fellowships and Partnerships – One of the really exciting things that I didn’t anticipate before launching the site was the extent to which companies would reach out to us to help them find writers for various opportunities they wanted to offer. It’s been an incredibly wide range, from the NFL wanting two writers for WGA minimum blind deals to Cassian Elwes bringing one and now two writers to the Sundance Film Festival as his guests. Particularly for writers early in their careers, paying close attention to our emails, social media, and the Partners page is a wise idea.

Were these sorts of Fellowships part of your long game when you launched the site five years ago? Or did it emerge organically from companies coming to you, recognizing how The Black List could be a resource to them?

Definitely the latter. I wish I could claim to have had the foresight to predict that this would happen. They’ve definitely come about because companies have reached out hoping to take a non-traditional approach to talent discovery. In Cassian’s case, it was as simple as us running into each other and him saying “I want to find a brand new writer who writes Sundance type screenplays and I want to bring them to Sundance. Can you help?” In others, it’s grown out of conversations I’ve had with various companies explaining how the site works and where its greatest potential lies.

Have any of the Blind Script deals - such as the Warner Bros Script deal and the WIGS blind script deal borne fruit yet?

If by borne fruit, you mean movies produced, sadly none to date. If by borne fruit, you mean that writers have received blind deals or otherwise gotten work, then yes, very much so. Tasha Huo, Chris Salmanpour, and Suzanne Allain have received blind deals at Warner Brothers. Andrew Bluestone, who, incidentally, was discovered by his managers via the site, claimed that inaugural WIGS deal.

One thing I like about the Black List-related Fellowships and Script Deals is that there's no additional charge to enroll an active script in the process. Can you commit to that always being the case? Do you foresee any opportunities that would require a separate entry fee?

Unless the site changes radically in other ways or for some reason we’ve partnered with someone that requires for some reason that we not use the site, I can’t imagine any opportunities that would require a separate entry fee.

Come back tomorrow for Part II.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Black List website "success story" Justin Kremer reflects on how it launched his career

Mere weeks after the Black List website launched five years ago, an unknown writer named Justin Kremer became the first site user to be signed by representation. And this wasn't just any agency, it was with Creative Artists Agency, one of the biggest players in the industry.

I was an early supporter of Justin's work, but even by the time I'd posted my rave of his MCCARTHY, there was clear momentum behind it. Flash forward five years and MCCARTHY isn't in production, so I can imagine the cynics wondering what it all meant for Justin in the end. And what did it feel like to be at the center of the hype of the Black List's first success? Fortunately, Justin's here to take us through the last five years in his own words:

It was October of 2012 and I was fucking depressed. I’d spent the last six months lying on my couch, wallowing in self pity, as I searched for a job as a creative executive in the minuscule New York film community. I thought CE work was the best path toward the dream I had since the age of 16: becoming a screenwriter. But I had no prospects, no real plan, and absolutely no hope.

When I heard about the Black List’s new website. I didn’t think much of it. I uploaded a screenplay out of sheer boredom. I entered this experiment with no great expectations. I thought perhaps the site would reward me with a modicum of validation, in the form of a lukewarm/slightly positive review, at a time when I really needed a boost.

Forty-eight hours later, I was sitting in a friend’s basement when I refreshed my email, as I did compulsively those days (fine, I still do). It was Saturday night at 10 o’clock and there was no way a prospective employer would be emailing me, yet I persisted. I discovered an email from The Black List containing my review. It was positive. Very positive. My jaw hit the floor. I read it and reread it, convinced there had been some sort of mistake. This reviewer couldn’t have read my script, right?

Fast forward to the following Friday. I was sleeping when the phone rang. An agent was calling.

She was in New York City for twenty-four hours and wanted to know if I was interested in meeting.

I leapt out of bed, with a furor I haven’t matched since, and rushed to the train. I checked my email as I boarded. Another agency requested a call that evening. What the fuck. My head was spinning. I took the meeting, and the call, and suddenly I had offers of representation. When I returned home that evening, my friends and family surprised me with balloons and a cake. That was day one of the journey, but the euphoria I felt that day is a high I’ll chase for the rest of my life.

Forty-eight hours earlier, I was a loser with no direction. Suddenly, I was a loser juggling phone calls and meetings amidst the havoc of Hurricane Sandy, the greatest natural disaster New York had seen in ages. I spent much of the next two weeks in my car (the only place I could find a functioning electrical current to charge my phone), talking to folks selling me a dream. It was confusing. I’m a neurotic New York Jew terrified of disappointing people. Saying “no thanks” to potential reps was….a struggle. While I recognized that I was stuck with an embarrassment of riches, I was far more stressed than I was enthused.

How do I break the news to [insert rep here]?

Did I lead this person on?

And, most importantly…

Am I making the right decision?

Fortunately, I did, and found a wonderful manager in Adam Kolbrenner and the team at Madhouse. Adam's been by my side every step of the way, and I'd be lost without his sage advice.

The next step was a trip to Hollywood. I was a lifelong New Yorker, and hadn’t been to Los Angeles since I was a child. I flew in for a week of meetings and made the rounds, collecting Poland Spring from Burbank to Santa Monica. By the end of the week, a producer informed me that she’d like to “develop” an original idea of mine.

I was woozy. I heard the sound of a Brinks trunk. I had made it! I was a success.

…no, not quite. In fact, I was an idiot. I didn’t understand the meaning of the word develop. I didn’t understand the economics of life as a professional screenwriter. Hell, I didn’t make a dime for the first eighteen months of my career. Studios didn’t cut me a check just because I had landed reps and a spot on the Black List.

Life as a writer is full of false starts. One of the great challenges we face is in managing expectations, in finding a middle ground between overwhelming cynicism and bleary eyed optimism. Initially, I saw nothing but roses. Then, things took a turn. Every false start crushed me, and exacerbated my impostor syndrome. There was (and is) only one solution: keep writing.

Forgive the brief diversion here, but I’d like to share the most important thing I’ve learned about life as a screenwriter. When I first started, my happiness was solely dependent on my work. I set a goal, and I obsessed over it. First, it was: land reps. Next: make the Black List. Then: book a gig. I swore to myself that if I achieved this one thing, I’d be happy. I was lying. Each time I achieved something I felt a fleeting burst of joy, and then… nothing. I wasn’t happy. Instead, I’d just move the goalposts again. Onto the next goal. That’s the one that’ll really change your life. It took me years to recognize that I was the one who needed to change. I needed balance, to find happiness outside of my work.

I digress.

The Black List allowed to me to build the career I have today. It landed me representation and lasting connections. Two years after an executive downloaded my script off the site and emailed me to say hello, we worked on a project together. Four years after the site shined a light on my dusty old script, it was revived again, and is still kicking.

I look back at my Black List experience with disbelief and a hell of a lot of gratitude. As I write this, the sun’s peeking through the window of my LA apartment (yes, I moved, and you should, too, if you’re serious about this). I’m sitting at my desk, as I do every day, writing. There’s no greater gift than that. So thank you, Black List. Thank you, Franklin. Happy Anniversary.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Happy birthday, Black List site!

This week is the five year anniversary of the Black List website.

I was an early supporter of the website. In fact, I'm not only an advocate, I'm also a client. About a year after the launch I made a public show of putting my stalker thriller TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU on the website, and it resulted in my script being one of the Top 50 Downloads of 2103, and a manager taking me on as a client. (I'm no longer repped by that individual, who has since left their agency and the business.)

One of my favorite Black List related posts was when founder and CEO Franklin Leonard sat down with the puppet the week of the release and took some hard questions about the site's intent and mission. One of the site's strengths is Franklin's transparency. He doesn't hide from criticism and over the years has made himself available many times to me for interviews and clarifications. His kind of integrity is rarer than it should be in this business and I've never questioned his commitment as an ally to all writers, aspiring and professional.



I also have found the site to be a great way to solicit amateur scripts based on their loglines. Several times I've invited my readers to post their loglines within comments during a 24-hour period, with the result being I will weed out the best and read a half-dozen or so scripts. These days I don't have the sort of free time that allows for me to do this any time soon, but I enjoyed it while it lasted.

The site itself marked the occasion yesterday with a press release that announced in part:

Seven feature films have been produced from scripts discovered on blcklst.com since our launch five years ago: NIGHTINGALE (written by Frederick Mensch); ZINZANA (aka RATTLE THE CAGE, by Lane and Ruckus Skye); SHOVEL BUDDIES (by Jason Hellerman); EDDIE THE EAGLE (by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton); KATIE SAYS GOODBYE (by Wayne Roberts); PSYCHOANALYSIS (by James Raue); and DESOLATION (by Matt Anderson and Michael Larson-Kangas.)

Countless writers have found representation, had their scripts sold or optioned, or made further advancements to their professional careers via site interactions -- read our series of screenwriter interviews on the Black List Blog for the stories of these writers in their own words.

Since October 2012, we've partnered with organizations including the WGA-W, the WGA-E, The Sloan Foundation, The Sundance Institute, Women in Film, UrbanWorld, Indigenous Media, and more, in addition to collegiate partnerships with schools like New York University, Columbia University, UCLA, and Chapman University.

Screenwriters have been able to submit their scripts for consideration in opportunities with Warner Bros., Disney, the NFL, Google, Women in Film, go90, FOX, Turner/TBS, WIGS, Studiocanal/The Picture Company, Symbolic Exchange, Cassian Elwes, and more. Additionally, annual screenwriters labs have been held by The Black List to provide mentorship and development for writers using blcklst.com since 2013 -- the fifth installment of the Black List Lab for Feature Screenwriters featured mentors Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith, Phyllis Nagy, Allison Schroeder, and more. 

 Later this week, I'll have a post from Justin Kremer, the Black List site's first "success story," and then hopefully another follow-up interview with Franklin Leonard.

While you wait for those, head on over to the Black List's site and check out this cool timeline of everything they've been up to since the launch.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Writer/director Josh Klausner (DATE NIGHT) debuts WANDERLAND at the Hamptons International Film Festival

A number of years ago, I interviewed screenwriter Josh Klausner about how he broke into the business and his work on SHREK FOREVER AFTER and DATE NIGHT. Today, Klausner's latest film WANDERLAND debuts at the Hamptons International Film Festival.

WANDERLAND is a low-budget film, written and directed by Klausner. It has musical numbers, but as he told the Village Voice, he doesn't think of it as a traditional musical.



Josh Klausner’s lively, lovely film, shot on a dime in and around the Hamptons, does not exactly have the trappings of what we think of when we think of musicals. Inspired partly by Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, partly by Homer’s The Odyssey, and partly by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Wanderland — which premieres at the Hamptons International Film Festival this Friday — follows Alex as he drifts through a weird night trying to make his way home, coming into contact with a whole host of local oddballs. It’s a strange, atmospheric little film, occasionally hopping genres and always keeping us wondering as to where it’s all headed.

It’s quite a change of pace for Klausner, who made his name as a screenwriter on Hollywood films like Shrek Forever After and Date Night. But that was sort of the idea: He says that after years of working in the mainstream and studio world (he started his career as an assistant to the Farrelly brothers, eventually becoming a second unit director for them), he felt he was “creatively dying” and wanted to get back in touch with his own voice.

Coming from a regimented world of carefully placed plot points and clear, preordained through lines, Klausner embraced with this film a drifting open-endedness. “When you work for so long in the studio system, for better and for worse, you kind of know the pattern that works,” he says. “So as you’re writing, you basically know where you’re going at every moment. I wanted to have the experience of writing again when I didn’t know where I was going — to once again have that feeling of discovery. I tried to make an intuitive movie.”

The rest of the profile is worth a read here, and has me hoping it won't be long before WANDERLAND is available for general viewing.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Law & Order's greatest moment on gun control

Sandy Hook was the last straw for me. That's the point where I just flat out stopped pretending there's any reason to give consideration to the pro-gun rhetoric of the under-educated, trigger-happy degenerates who act like any regulation on guns is a far more violent injustice than a five year-old's head splattered open like a melon with a featured role on Gallagher's comeback tour.

(Gory? Of course it is. I think our only chance of escaping this nightmare is to not ignore the horror. Reduce these victims to a statistic and you dehumanize what was done to them. Think of them as people whose insides ended up on their outside and you'll never look at a gun defender the same way again.)

If you're inclined to argue with me, you're wasting your time, particularly with the same talking points peddled by scum like Fox News, Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh:

"Criminals don't care about laws so gun laws wouldn't solve anything." Yeah, and laws against homicide don't do a thing to stop the thousands of people to take the lives of others so let's just stop regulating murder too. And fuck you.

"Guns don't kill people. People kill people. People can kill with knives and cars too. Do you want to outlaw them?" Show me the knife capable of cutting 600 people in five minutes from a few under yards away and I'd demand it be outlawed to. And fuck you.

"SECOND AMENDMENT!!!!!!"  ...calls for a "well-regulated militia." So let's compromise and regulate gun ownership so much that you can't buy a starter's pistol without a five-day waiting period and a DNA sample.

And fuck you.

"Now is not the time to have the conversa--" Fuck off and die.

Columbine should have been the end of this. Virginia Tech should have been the end of this. Some degenerate shooting up a pre-school SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE END OF THIS. And every time we get the same bullshit talking points, fueled by a racist xenophobic hate group that gets to call itself a political party, and who scares their base into voting against their own economic interests every time with "They're gonna come to take your guns!"

We can't reason with these people. And it's time to stop pretending that there's any value in being the reasonable adults in the room. They've thrived not because of any adherence to legislature, or facts, or studies. It's pure emotion, pure rage.

Gun enthusiasts are creatures of ID, not intelligence. You don't find a middle ground with them. The slaughter at Sandy Hook should have been an appeal to the emotions of even the most ardent gun supporters. So how did they react? They embraced the claims of a nutcase who argued the entire thing was a staged false flag.  "More lies the libtards tell so they can take your guns!"

Bill O'Reilly called these mass shootings "the price of freedom," as if the needless deaths of hundreds is acceptable collateral damage that deserves not even a conversation about changing our ways. Mind you, this lover of freedom was incensed by expressions of the First Amendment when football players PEACEFULLY protested racial injustice. Maybe they should have taken out a couple toddlers. That seems to be what it takes to get a conservative behind a constitutional right.

So let's stop acting like these nuts can in any way be part of the solution. They won't be. We'll only solve this problem when we're strong enough to do this without them.

And make no mistake. The only solution IS taking all of the guns. There are international studies that show strong gun regulations have had a massive impact on the number of gun deaths. Banning automatic weapons, implementing a background check system, and requiring permits are all things that definitely work.

18 years ago, Law & Order took on the topic of gun control in an episode called "Gunshow." Jack McCoy attempts to prosecute a gun manufacturer for selling a gun that they knew was desirable for its vulnerability to being tampered with to make the firearm fully automatic. It's one of the best closing arguments in the history of the series.

I thought of that scene a lot yesterday when I heard about how the Las Vegas shooter was able to to hit nearly 600 people in a matter of minutes. What I wrote above is pure emotion. Without apologies. If it upsets you, good. It should. What Jack does below is a masterful presentation of how grotesque these weapons are, and what an abomination it is to defend their existence over the lives of the people they injure and kill.


Law & Order "Gunshow" (Jack McCoy's Summation & the Verdict) from Law and Order Diehards on Vimeo.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Do I still hate this? A second chance for ONE TREE HILL's school shooting episode - Part 2

Yesterday I began a re-visitation of the infamous school shooting episode of One Tree Hill. For the first part of this series, go here.

Let's talk about Jimmy. When Colin Fickes was cast in the pilot in a role that had only a few lines, no one would have envisioned that less than three years later, that character's emotional breakdown would have to drive the series's most intense episode. For the most part, he fares okay. The script is not without its overwrought moments and in a few spots, it proves to be too tempting an invitation for the actor to go over-the-top. The extreme nature of the situation excuses some of this, but Fickes has one line-reading near the end of the show that always makes me wince. (I won't spoil it, but it comes when he confronts Lucas and Peyton.)

In spite of that, Fickes does a good job of conveying Jimmy's pain and the growing panic as it becomes clear to him that there's no good way to walk away from the situation he's responsible for. Unlike most of the school shooters we read about in the news, Jimmy doesn't walk into the school with the intent of mowing down as many of his enemies as possible. It seems he brings the gun for protection, expecting he'll be a target.

It's also notable that he brings a simple handgun and not any kind of assault rifle. That helps put a little bit of distance between this and the Columbine incidents, mitigating most charges that the show is exploiting those sorts of tragedies. Something else I hadn't considered until this rewatch: at no point does this storyline ever lead to any discussion of gun control. It's not an episode that's focused on America's gun culture. It doesn't want to say anything about gun control or the availability of firearms. It really wants us to be focused on the pain that might drive someone to do something like this.

When a teen show is in that territory, it's in immediate competition with one of the best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Earshot." You might remember it as the episode where Buffy gets the ability to read minds and ends up trying to prevent someone from killing everyone in the school. When she confronts Jonathan, who she assumes is the would-be school shooter, the young man snorts at her claims that she could understand his pain. He can't imagine anything that could be bad about being beautiful and popular.

Buffy, who's spent the entire episode unable to block out the thoughts of everyone around her, exposed unfiltered to all their fears and insecurities, says, "My life happens on occasion to suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it’s not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening."

One Tree Hill can't hope to top that, especially with as deftly as Buffy set up that moment, but it clearly wants to make that statement. I'll give them points for ambition, but too many other factors prevent them from earning that kind of moment.

I'm going to bring up something that couldn't have contributed to my initial dislike of the episode for the reason of "facts not in evidence" at the time. This is an episode that puts our characters in a room with a fellow student on the verge of shooting them, and asks us to feel HIS pain. We're absolutely preached to empathize with Jimmy and to feel that he's not a bad person so much as someone who's made terrible mistakes that he can't take back. He's clearly depressed and POSSIBLY suffering from mental illness. The show wants us to know "he - and people like him - need help."

In the following seasons, there will be no fewer than three antagonists who are depicted as, to use a clinical term, "crazy." The psycho stalker becomes an OTH staple thanks to:

Psycho Derek - stalker who claims to be Peyton's long-lost brother. He became obsessed with Peyton following a complete mental breakdown that was brought on by the death of his girlfriend in a car crash while he was driving. We eventually learn that his girlfriend bore a striking resemblance to Peyton, which led to him fixating on her to an obsessive degree. He becomes violent and unstable, but any effort the show makes at empathy comes far too late, and after several episodes of playing him as a violent deranged psycho.

Nannie Carrie - hired to look after Nathan and Haley's son Jamie, she gets fired after trying to seduce Nathan. She then attempt to kidnap Jamie and run away with him, determined to become his new mom. It's revealed that she too suffered a mental breakdown after her own child was kidnapped and murdered, thus eventually provoking her to "replace" her child with Jamie. As sad as this is, she too is treated like yet another horror movie stalker psycho and is the ONLY OTH villain to actually be killed by the "good guys" (well, Dan) in a sequence where we're supposed to cheer for her demise.

Katie - Katie is the only one depicted as already being treated for a mental illness and becomes dangerous when she goes off her meds. She becomes convinced she's Clay's dead wife, who she resembles (don't ask), and after an attempt to get Clay back fails, she shoots Clay and his girlfriend Quinn. In a later return she gets the same "horror movie psycho" depiction that Carrie got, with the difference being she gets captured and presumably treated.

So three villains shown to be suffering from either some kind of mental illness or grief-indued psychotic break, but all of them might as well be Michael Myers. This is how the show normally treats its antagonists, and why if you're watching this episode in context with the rest of the show, it's probably going to feel like more of an awkward fit than for the "very special episode" watchers.

The show's anti-bullying message also takes a hit just a few episodes later when Brooke bullies Rachel fat-shaming her by digging up pictures of her pre-plastic surgery self.

The thing that really pushed this episode over the edge for me on a first viewing was the ending. Keith, who's Lucas's uncle (and soon-to-be stepfather) enters the school in a bid to talk Jimmy down. He ends up confronting Jimmy in the hall, trying to reach this broken kid, but all of his "it gets better" talk only pushes Jimmy further over the edge. The boy turns the gun on himself and takes his own life. Keith rushes to the body and looks up to see his brother, Dan Scott standing there.

Here's where I explain way too much backstory. Dan and Keith never got along much. After Dan abandoned Lucas's mother, it was Keith who was there for her. Dan resented this, and had an even more legitimate reason to hate Keith when Keith slept with Dan's wife. After he attempted revenge for that, someone drugged Dan and left him to die after setting fire to his car dealership. Thanks to Lucas, Dan survived, but Dan was convinced his brother tried to kill him. He was determined to take revenge.

This episode ends with Dan picking up Jimmy's gun and shooting Keith.

It's a moment completely out of tone with the rest of the "very special episode." A decent story about the pain of the bullied suddenly turns into a shocking soap opera twist of one man using a school shooter to cover up the murder of his brother. It's like if Buffy's excellent "The Body" suddenly dropped in a scene with Glory and her minions doing business as usual.

I know. I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth. Before I said part of the problem was that this episode was so removed from the show's usual soap opera antics and now I'm complaining when that reality snaps back and asserts itself. It provokes the question of if the problem really is the melodramatic twist... or how it's executed?

The whole rest of the episode is about the hidden pain of the invisible kids, the ones no one pays attention to except to bully. It's about the darkness that grows in silence. That's NOT Dan Scott by any means. He started the series as an asshole dad and by season three he was practically a comic book villain. There's no empathetic darkness there.

But Keith - the guy who's spent the two seasons (and presumably many years leading up to it) being bullied, tormented and manipulated by his brother - now that's a guy whose pain inspires some empathy. It would require a step or two to get there, but for the shocking ending to work thematically, it should be KEITH firing the fatal shot.

As it stands, when this episode becomes "the one where Dan murders Keith in cold blood," it becomes the point where no matter how much slack I give the rest of the show, I can't help but groan in frustration. When rewatching the episode, I ended up tweeting with a few people about it and several fans said that one thing they liked was that this episode had repercussions that were felt all the way up until the end. Well, yes and no.

The lessons from Jimmy Edwards's sad fate are forgotten pretty quickly, both by the show and the characters. Keith's murder lingers for a while. It's a full season and a half before Dan is exposed as the killer and the fallout from that keeps him estranged from his sons until the very end of the series. In other words, the fall out is all about Dan.

This isn't an episode about Dan. It's not even an episode that gives us particular insight into Dan. When Dan gets that gun, he's presented with an opportunity that the story failed to build up effectively. The turn comes too late to be anything but inexplicable.

So after two days of breakdowns and analysis, let's return to the original question: Do I still hate this episode?

You know what? No. It's not without its flaws, but it's not as exploitative or offensive as I found it on a first viewing. I'd have given it a D-,  maybe even an F back then. This time, it feels like a B-, maybe even a solid B if I'm feeling charitable. Schwahn makes some smart choices in terms of how he uses most of his ensemble. Even with the misstep of an ending, there are definitely TV writing lessons to be learned from this episode.

Does it deserve its reputation as the best episode of One Tree Hill? I'm gonna say "no." It's neither representative enough the series or transcendent enough to earn that title. My personal favorite is probably Season 1's "Every Night is Another Story," though a couple other episodes could challenge it.

Was it worth the revisit? Definitely. Aside from having a completely different perspective on the episode, it was a good reminder in general about how the context we bring to something at the time we experience it can inform our reactions. Some media will hit us differently under different circumstances. In my case, the hot button nature of the episode was probably a major factor in my initial disgust. I'm not the same person 11 years later, nor is the world the same place.

So will I be revisiting other TV shows and movies that got a strong negative from me before? You bet I will.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Do I still hate this? A second chance for ONE TREE HILL's school shooting episode

For a while, I've been keeping a list for some posts on pop culture "second chances." The concept was that I'd rewatch something that I notoriously hated, particularly something where my opinion ran counter to consensus and see if I would have to own up to missing the mark. The only reason I've not pursued this yet was that there's so much NEW content to consume and react to that I couldn't justify burning time on something I already was expecting to hate. Then about a week ago I ended up revisiting one of the items at the top of the list and found that - SURPRISE - my original, strong reaction had evolved. It took a couple of days of thinking about it before I realized, "Dammit, I'm gonna have to write this up, aren't I?"

I'm in the middle of writing a spec pilot, and for the first time, I'm attempting a teen drama. A few of my friends have been saying for a while (but especially after my posts on 13 Reasons Why) that it's shocking I haven't done one yet. The closest I ever got was the half-hour drama series I ran in college, but I've never tried a teen series formally. My fear has always been that I'm TOO much of a fan to bring anything to the genre but imitation. (It's similar to Bryan Singer's stance that he should never direct STAR TREK because "you'd feel like you were watching WRATH OF KHAN again.") I reasoned one thing that might help would be to revisit some of my old favorites that I haven't seen in a while that I didn't watch to death. (In other words, not The Wonder Years or Dawson's Creek.) I spent a week revisiting Roswell, which was surprisingly helpful in getting me started. Then, just as I hit a wall in development, I saw that One Tree Hill would be leaving Netflix at the end of the month.

I watched the series from the very first episode, mostly because I was still relatively new to LA, had very little money, knew very few people, didn't have cable OR DSL, and was very bored that Tuesday night. The first few episodes showed promise as the writers and the actors got a better handle on the characters, there was a decent part of the first season where it felt like it could have evolved into a thoughtful teen drama that we might have talked about in the same breath as Friday Night Lights. The show choose a different course, embracing a more soapy direction and becoming the very definition of a guilty pleasure.

Here, I'll prove it. If you're outside the target demo and you've heard of this show, you almost certainly know it as "the show where the dog ate the heart." (Be sure to check out this awesome oral history of that scene.)



I want you to remember this as I drop the following quote from Les Moonves, President and CEO of CBS, speaking about the decision to pick up One Tree Hill when the WB and UPN merged into the CW: "Qualitatively I think it was the best show the WB had." 

This was in a season that included Gilmore Girls, Everwood, Smallville, and Supernatural. Was Les Moonves seeing something that I wasn't? Had I been watching One Tree Hill wrong all these years?

I never watched the original Melrose Place, but I know the appeal that show had for its audience, and that's more or less what kept me coming back to OTH. (Okay, that and Bethany Joy Lenz as Haley, who was the show's best character, best actress and almost certainly in my Top 2 WB crushes.) I wasn't alone in this opinion in the internet circles I traveled in back there, but there was also a teen audience that watched this show in earnestness, and it's that audience that creator Mark Schwahn wanted to speak to in the third season when he wrote a school shooting episode.

The episode is the sixteenth episode of the third season, written by Mark Schwahn and entitled "With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept,"  It aired on March 1, 2006, placing it less than seven years after Columbine and in a time when the subject was still seen as being off-limits. Schwahn recalled in one interview that, "The studio and the network were scared to death of that episode. They tried to convince me not to do it."

They weren't the only ones. Cast member Hilarie Burton recalled the actors didn't like the idea much either. "None of the actors were into it, none of us wanted to do it. We got the script, we were very upset about it. Um, we were like 'This hasn't happened in so long. Why would we bring this up? We don't want to encourage or give attention to that kind of behavior.' Then literally while we're having this conversation with our creator and our bosses, two incidents happened. It was heartbreaking to know that stuff was still going on, it just wasn't receiving media attention that it used to."

For years after the airing, I've seen this episode cited as one of One Tree Hill's best episodes. I've even seen it place on other lists that cite intense, powerful or otherwise relevant episodes of TV. This always got under my skin because when it first aired, I hated this episode. I felt it was a story that the show wasn't capable of doing, that they had no business trying to touch it and that the whole thing felt very preachy and melodramatic in a way that cheapened the very message they were trying to send. And all of that was before the final moment of the episode, which threw away any goodwill the show had otherwise built up. I found the whole thing offensive and disrespectful to the real tragedies it was reflecting.

Last week I rewatched it and much to my shock, my reaction was significantly distant from my earlier encounter. I still think the ending risks throwing the whole thing in the trash (more on that later), but the route there didn't get under my skin nearly as much.

The setup: In the previous episode, the school's time capsule was released 20 years early and among the video confessions was that of Jimmy Edwards, a minor character who'd appeared in the first couple episodes. In his confession, the nerdy outcast laid into all the jocks and the popular kids, which only made him a target for bullying. The episode opens with Jimmy returning to school, and when he gets hassled in the hallway, he pulls out a handgun and fires a wild shot. Lockdown is declared, everyone who can flee does while others barracade themselves in classrooms.

From here, the story follows four tracks, and as some of this is teachable with regard to television production, I'm going to break them down. In writing for television, you always have to be thinking about budget. In the case of this particular episode, it also helps to know that it was not a popular episode on the network end. From the stories I've heard over the years, Mark Schwahn was a very savvy man when it came to managing the network and finding ways to do the show his way without running afoul of them. My theory - and this is only a theory - is that he wrote this episode as a relatively cheap bottle-show so that the budget couldn't be used against him to extract creative concessions.

Fortunately, a school shooter standoff can easily lend itself to the sort of limited location tense thrillers that I'm so fond of. I'm also gonna guess Schwahn's next creative decisions were based on two and seasons of knowing his cast's "strike zones" when it came to acting. As a showrunner, you figure out what your cast can and can't do and you write to that. As seriously as the show was going to take this scenario, it demanded that some actors not be taken too far out of their comfort zone. There are four locations, and so you want to place your MVPs where they can get the most out of those story tracks.

Outside the school - For most of the hour, this is where the adult actors are, as all the parents get to show concern and argue with the police that enough isn't being done. This part probably has the most extras - which don't come cheap - but more than likely was knocked out in a single day of location shooting.

The school hallway - This is where Jimmy fires the gun while everyone's at their lockers. After that one scene, there's no need for extras and we only return to this location at the end of the hour, in a confrontation featuring far fewer actors.

The Library - Peyton (Hilarie Burton) is hit by a bullet and in the commotion, ends up hiding alone in the library. Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) actually joins his brother Nathan (James Lafferty) to sneak back into the school and help. He gets to Peyton and this turns into one of those stories where two people trapped and afraid of dying end up confessing their feelings for each other. At this point in the series, Lucas is dating Brooke (Sophia Bush), Peyton's best friend. Brooke/Lucas/Peyton was the show's big love triangle almost from the start.

So the show basically uses this to restart some tensions. That's one reason for isolating these two (two of the bigger leads of the show) in what's basically a B-story. The other reason might be that Burton's efforts at conveying terror are often pitched at soap opera levels, and I'd go 50-50 if Murray was the guy I'd want to bet on when it comes to delivering tension in a hostage scene. Could they have risen to the occasion? Maybe, but Schwahn lobs them easier pitches and plays to the relationship fans at the same time.

The Gym - After evacuating, the students are taken to a nearby gym to await pickup from their parents. This is Brooke's story to carry, and again, it feels like Schwahn made sure one of his better players was the anchor for this. This part gets a little preachy with the message, as Brooke realizes she doesn't know a less popular student who's nonetheless in her grade. That same student also hides when her mom arrives, saying she wanted to see if her mother even would miss her if she was gone. The show feels like it's trying to use this plot as an appeal to reach out to kids who feel unloved or like they don't belong.

I remember this subplot seeming ridiculous to me at the time, and so I was perplexed by my non-reaction on the rewatch. I didn't revisit any of the immediately surrounding episodes, so my best guess is that maybe Brooke's empathetic attitude didn't quite mesh with whatever her current storyarc was. The sheer earnestness of this plot is also likely easier to taken out of context from the show. It's a series often about beautiful people doing horrible things to each other and escaping consequences, so a story about "hey, we should all be nice to the unpopular kids" might mean well, but it's coming from the wrong messenger.

But as I said, if you're not coming to this ep as a hard core viewer, that's gonna blow right past you.

The Tutor Center - When lockdown is called we see Haley lock the door after some kids take shelter. She tells everyone to get down and the camera pans past the six students in there before finally coming to rest on.... Jimmy Edwards. It's an effectively chilling moment, as no one in the room realizes the shy, awkward kid they've known for years is the guy who fired the gun.

The Tutor Center is a perfect setting for this story for a lot of reasons: it's a small, producible set; there's a built-in reason why no adults might be there; it can strand some of our regulars with new characters who MIGHT turn out to be cannon fodder... and it's a very logical place if you want to put Haley at the center of the action.

As I said before, Bethany Joy Lenz (billed in this ep under her then-married name Galeotti) is the clear MVP among the cast. Also, the Haley/Nathan relationship is pretty clearly the show's most popular pairing and Schwahn himself has said, "I think Haley is probably the most beloved character." If you're doing an OTH story with a lot of emotion at its core, Lenz is someone you're gonna want to send in.

It's also pretty obvious that you'll need to put Nathan in there, as James Lafferty tended to do his best work in scenes with Lenz. The characters got married at the end of the first season (yes, while they were both still high school juniors), and it's interesting to note that this episode doesn't hang a lantern on that fact. I don't think there's a single direct reference to the fact they're married. Nathan doesn't say anything like, "My wife's in there!" when he charges into the school. 

I very much suspect this was intentional and that the creators, knowing this episode would get extra attention, decided to downplay one of their more absurd developments. This is the rare episode where these characters ACTUALLY feel like students and not mini-adults or college-aged. They're not running fashion lines or touring as music superstars. They feel like regular kids stuck in a terrifying situation.

That's another case of something working within this one-hour confine, but throwing the whole series off-kilter to do it. The following week, things are business as usual and one story has the teens throwing a late night kegger at the site of the shooting as a way of coping with their feelings. Even Lucas calling that out as inappropriate can't mitigate the sheer insensitivity of the scene.


But damn if the scenes in the Tutor Center don't make it easy to forget all of that for a while. In addition to Haley and Nathan, two other characters in there have close ties to the shooter. Mouth and Skills were his buddies at the River Court until they drifted apart, and the actors do a decent job of conveying their disbelief and horror at what their friend has started. There are also two other characters never seen before on the show who are there to more or less add other pressure on Jimmy.

For crying out loud, even RACHEL - possibly the worst character on the show up to that point - gets in a strong moment or two.

Tomorrow: I dig deeper on the big themes of the episode and if the show's big twist is as much of a miss as it used to be for me.