Friday, December 20, 2019

THE RISE OF SKYWALKER tries to give us everything we want, not everything we need

So just so everyone's clear here - this is NOT a spoiler free review. I'm going to be reacting to the biggest surprises of THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, so if you don't want to know the whole movie before going in, steer clear.
Ever since STAR WARS relaunched with THE FORCE AWAKENS in 2015, I've been pretty happy with the "Saga" films. TFA is one of the most rewatchable STAR WARS films in the canon and I really like THE LAST JEDI as well. SOLO was okay, and ROGUE ONE was a movie that didn't hold up as well for me on a rewatch, but thus far, I've been very invested in the core movies.

THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is less a feature film and more a series finale. If you watch it through that lens, the callbacks and occasional fan-service is less irritating than it might be otherwise. The plot construction feels looser here than in most of the other films. It's a video game quest, with our heroes going from location to location, getting the clue that sends them to the next location. It's STAR WARS at its most comic-book, particularly in the last third.

For the first half of the film, the overall thrust works remarkably well - particularly due to some great chemistry from the ensemble. This is the first time we see Ray, Finn, and Poe sharing an adventure and Chewie, Threepio and BB-8 are all along for the ride too, in a race against Kylo Ren to get a Sith artifact that will lead to a planet where Palpatine is hiding out.

Yep, Palpatine is back. Weirdly, this reemergence isn't revealed to the audience in the context of a dramatic scene, but in the opening crawl, which explains that Palpatine's voice has been transmitted across the galaxy as a message and everyone is reeling at the thought he's survived. It's the first weird choice in a series of them. Wouldn't it have more impact for us to see the Resistance hear that message in real time and realize "oh shit. We're screwed?" There's a reaction that's skipped right over here.

(Maybe this is because Leia's reaction would be the most significant and there was no way to manufacture that?)

How Palpatine survived is never explained, save for a throwaway line that theorizes something about clones. This guess is seemingly wrong, because when we see him in the flesh, his body appears broken in a way that suggests the original Emperor, not a rejuvenated duplicate. I would have loved a tiny hint of how he survived the Death Star explosion and made his way to that planet, and it would have helped a LOT if any kind of credible explanation was given for the fleet build-up he's been doing for 35 years.

His plan is missing a huge "Why now?" Why reveal himself now? What have all those officers on those ships been doing for these years? Why sit out so long even after the Republic was wiped out? Where did they get those planet destroying weapons?

And aren't the stakes already big enough without every ship being able to destroy a planet on its own? It's a capability that's only exploited once and after that it might as well not even matter. The final confrontation between fleets is dire enough for the Resistance without scaling up the threat to that level. It's stakes for stakes sake, leveling up on a threat that's already leveled up to a ridiculous degree.

They're just giant stakes that aren't earned.

The resolution to that sequence has a similar problem. We're told at the start that the Resistance has been trying to pull together new support, but they're still a bunch of ragtag fighters. As Palpatine's rise draws near for... some reason, Lando and Chewie whip around the galaxy trying to shore up support. Poe has one of the film's better lines when he says they need to show people that "We are not alone... good people will fight if we lead them."

The idea that there's this silent oppressed majority that is just waiting for a person to rally behind is a good one. Hell, done right it could dovetail right off of THE LAST JEDI and Luke's mythic reemergence. The execution is rushed. If Chewie and Lando could organize a massive fleet of allies in the space of an afternoon, why haven't they done this before? There's a case to be made that Lando's got a legendary reputation and it doesn't hurt to have him working all his connections, but then shouldn't we at least SEE him cutting that deal with one ally?

Like many plot points here, there are a lot of things happening between scenes that we're just meant to assume, even if they'd have made for better drama on-screen. We're shown Point A, Lando and Chewie leaving to drum up help from sources that have rebuffed the Resistance so far, and we get Point C, the massive fleet arriving as the cavalry, but Point B is skipped over.

There are a lot of missing Point Bs in this film. I'm fine filling in some of them for myself, but the ones that would have made for more compelling material than what we got on film tend to nag at me more.

"There are more of us" is a thought that's expressed multiple times in the film and it's exceedingly relevant in 2019, as we're governed by our own Emperor Palpatine who is destroying the American way of life, our national security and our national dignity by the day. He's made an entire political party complicit in this. Just watching impeachment hearings has made it clear - there is not a shred of intellectual honesty or patriotism left within the Republican Party. They welcome a fascist Trump dictatorship.

If you're about to roll your eyes at me getting political, remember that this Saga has ALWAYS been political. It grew out of George Lucas's feelings about Vietnam and there's no mistaking that REVENGE OF THE SITH is a very pointed criticism of everything awful about the Bush Administration making people think they had to trade liberty for safety. If you're just noticing NOW that STAR WARS is a political allegory for the times it was made in, you haven't been paying attention.

Indeed, this is a time that demands commentary. Donald Trump is a vile human being who's appealed to the worst human beings. They're loud about their support and at times, it can feel hopeless to fight because I could never conceive a compassionate human being supporting him just based off of what we knew about him BEFORE the election. To see people still proclaim him as their guy after running literal concentration camps that separate children as young as infants from their parents and force them to sleep on concrete floors, to see them cheer this guy has he puts people in power who are there to destroy the rights of others, and to see few consequences for it... is soul-shattering.

To see people you know who embraced their worst racism and misogyny to cast a vote for this scum is disheartening. To see them cling to that even after he's shown us worse sides might break you... if you thought the only path to victory was to turn back those who'd embraced the Dark Side.

And yet, all the polls show "There are more of us." He might have power, McConnell and his band of fascist might hold power and be using it to rig the game for elections to come, but when it comes to people who reject everything about Trump and what he represents "There are more of us."

To get through this moment in history, we need to remember that. We need to fight like hell against everything Trump and the Republican Party stand for, even when it seems like it's not having an effect. Why? Because THERE ARE MORE OF US.

This is how we win.

We have the numbers. Anyone who's still with Trump at this stage is not coming back from the Dark Side. They're further gone than Darth Vader ever was. We are not Luke Skywalker. We won't win by fighting for their redemption. We win by showing up, because no matter how many disciples the Dark Side has...


Imagine a STAR WARS movie that truly affirmed that power. Perhaps even a movie where the gambit isn't to turn Kylo Ren back from the Dark Side, because in the end we don't need the help of one who helped condemn us. I'd love a version of this where the galaxy rises up against fascism and Rey stands alone with the power of the Jedi against the Emperor, with Kylo Ren's heel turn ultimately immaterial to her arc.

Adding to the moments of "There are more of us," I would have loved for some scenes that showed the galaxy-wide scope of Palpatine's army going into battle. As a tacked on epilogue, we see Imperial ships destroyed above Cloud City and Endor, among others, but those feel like payoffs without set-ups. My reaction was "Oh, did we know that those worlds were being threatened?" Why didn't we see the peril brought to those worlds before they're apparently easily defeated by a movement that fit onto one ship just a single movie ago?

But now I'm going into the movie I wish I'd seen rather than the one I got, so maybe it's time to make some short takes on other points.

Rey as a Palpatine. I like the idea of her being "nobody," as THE LAST JEDI affirmed, but I can't deny the logic of bringing back Palpatine as a way of unifying all nine films in this chapter. Once Palpatine is on the table, it certainly helps earn that dramatically if he's tied to the most important character in this new trilogy so... if she has to be related to someone "known" I'm okay with it being Palpatine.

The reveal could have been handled better. Kylo Ren is the guy who told her in the last film that her parents were nobodies, so him spinning another tale here is a little like when the Joker tells two different versions of how he got those scars. When a character tells two incompatible truths, so you know it's not a case of one of them being a lie - it's an indication the character is a total liar.

The Rey/Palpatine confrontation was somewhat unsatisfying in execution. It's another case of the bad guy telling the good guy what the rules are without anything that affirms he's telling the truth. He seems to WANT Rey to strike him down, and claims it's so he can possess her, but this is a guy known for mind games within mind games. What if that's just a ploy to make her hesitate so he can dispose of her? Or use her against Kylo Ren somehow? Or convince her she needs to submit willingly?

It also leads to this weird confrontation where Rey's told, "Kill me and you become me!" But if she leaves him alive, her friends are still screwed. He's definitely built a Xanatos Gambit here, where all paths lead to his victory, but then how do we parse the loophole that lets her definitively kill him and win? It feels like the difference is that all of the Jedi have her back, and that their spirt is keeping her on the Light Side no matter what the Emperor says will happen, but it's muddled. Maybe the idea is if she killed him, he had to have corrupted her enough to get a foothold?

What I'm getting at is, the Third Act could have used another pass. I can see the broad strokes of what the movie's going for on all levels, and I like the general direction, but it needed more refinement. 

Leia. It's hard to believe it's been three years since Carrie Fisher left us, placing the series in a difficult spot because her character was the last of the core three still alive at the end of THE LAST JEDI. I'm glad that the filmmakers chose neither to rework TLJ to kill Leia off, or recast her here, as either would have been disastrous choices.

So how does it work repurposing deleted scenes to incorporate Leia into this film? It works. Mostly. There are a few moments where I couldn't help but think of The Simpsons episode where an editor demonstrates how one can complete Milhouse's performance using footage they've already shot:

But by and large, the device is effective. It helps that it's treated mostly casually and not a "Look at us! We resurrected Carrie Fisher!" Tying her death to the moment that eventually triggers Ben Solo's reemergence works on an emotional level. There's a hastiness to it that I can forgive based on the limited ways Leia could have interacted with that plot. I wish there had been a more meaningful mother/son story here, and all signs point to the earliest versions of this final chapter building to that.

But the bottom line is that both Carrie and Leia are treated with reverence, and using her here has real impact on the story, so I can go with it.

Also, we've finally canonized the idea that Leia DID complete her training, she DID become a Jedi and she actively chose not to walk that path. I wish Carrie was really here for that moment, especially to get to hold her own lightsaber, but I'll gladly take that fan service.

Kylo Ren's path out of the Dark Side. I want to be very clear with how I parse this. Though Kylo Ren eventually rejects the Dark Side and reassumes the identity of Ben Solo, I don't see any of this as a redemption. I've said for four years that in TFA, Ren committed "possibly the single most visceral act of evil depicted on screen in any of the STAR WARS films" and so he deserves no redemption.

When I've said this on Twitter, people try to argue Vader's redemption to me. "He killed billions in Star Wars alone!" No, he didn't. He's a glorified henchmen. Tarkin orders the destruction of Alderaan. And for the audience, that billion deaths is a statistic anyway. It's a pyrotechnic moment - it's not one the audience FEELS. That many deaths is a statistic.

"Yeah, but Anakin killed younglings!" Sure, we know that now. But in 1983, when RETURN OF THE JEDI was produced and we were asked to buy into Darth Vader's redemption, we neither knew that nor experienced it. Even when we DID experience that moment in REVENGE OF THE SITH, the murders are kept off-screen.

Look at Darth Vader's actions in the original trilogy, the moments of brutality we actually experience viscerally, and you'll find there's nothing there that's a true emotional dealbreaker in the way that Kylo Ren impaling his father is. A movie is less about what happens and more about what the audience experiences - and that is straight up, the most brutal moment in a Star Wars film, from an emotional point of view.

And even when he kills his master Snoke, Ren's response is not "I'm free!" It's "now I can claim MORE power!" Every opportunity he has to turn back, he doubles down. He blames Luke for a moment of drawing his lightsaber when by that moment, Ren had not only turned fully dark, but had turned several other students. Moments after that, they all slaughter the rest of Luke's Jedi students, his classmates.

He's true evil, and that has been reinforced in every appearance. His turn here feels rushed to me. It's a story decision only if you decide to experience it in the moment - the death of his mother, his mortal wound and Rey's compassion in healing him. I see all the story math of how those things could flip "Generic Supervillain," but it's hard to reconcile with this SPECIFIC supervillain's history.

I was glad to see Harrison Ford incorporated somehow, and I was relieved they didn't go with some kind of cheat that he had a Force Ghost that could show up and actually talk to him. Ben reliving the memories of Han's last moments, where he's reaching out to his son, isn't a bad concept dramatically. I think that scene could have tilted more to the direction of what Ben NEEDS is forgiveness, but he understands he can't get that. He can only relive that moment and seize the opportunity to make a different choice.

For me, this scene got about 80% of the way I wanted. Digging just a little bit deeper could have sold me more on Ben's conflicted nature and how complicated it really would be for him to erase the legacy of Kylo Ren. Just throwing away the saber and switching allegiances isn't quite enough. This moment could have been the beginning of a compelling redemption arc, but the movie just doesn't have the room for anything more. Adam Driver doesn't get anything compelling to play after this. He's just there to race to the rescue and eventually die.

I don't think the movie earned either Rey's assertion that "I wanted to take Ben's hand" or the kiss between them before she dies. All their interactions in the first film are hostile, with their first face to face being when he tries to mentally rape her. I can believe she'd try to turn him back in THE LAST JEDI, but with everything he's done - and everything he's done TO HER - making the romantic subtext into text threatens to turn them in to STAR WARS's "Luke and Laura" (kids, ask your mothers)

Luke and the Force Ghosts. I wanted more from Luke's return. It was inevitable he'd be the Obi-Wan whispering in Rey's ear, but Hamill plays that scene strangely. Him using the Force to lift the X-Wing out of the waters by the island was a payoff I was waiting for since THE LAST JEDI, though, and it was nicely done.

I know this would have been fan service, but I would have loved to have seen Force Ghost Luke again during the finale, perhaps returning with the Force Ghosts of ALL the Jedi characters, including  Leia and Anakin. Give us an "Avengers Assemble!" of all the Jedi, staring down Palpatine as Rey settles his hash once and for all.

And I'm not sure how you get there, but with as important as Darth Vader's was to Kylo Ren, I'm a little cheated we didn't get an Anakin/Kylo Ren force ghost conversation. I guess that's what fanfic is for.

Finn. So what was Finn going to tell Rey when he thought they were gonna die? That's dropped and never addressed again.

See-Threepio. I like that the droid got his most useful role in the series thus far here. I sorta wish the bold move with him halfway through the film wasn't undone, though. The film sets up major consequences and then undoes them for the sake of a feel-good ending.

THE RISE OF SKYWALKER has the unenviable task of winding down nine films and drawing threads to a close in a way that unifies everything. I don't think it's successful in every regard, though. Some of the strains can be glossed over or forgiven by nostalgia-driven dopamine rushes, but when it fades we're left with a movie that tries very hard to give everyone everything that they want, and
as such, it can be a satisfying experience on the most superficial levels.

It was probably impossible given the time crunch this movie had to be produced under, but maybe would have been better served by more investment into what the audience needed.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

MasterClass offers "Buy One, Gift One" All-Access Pass for the holidays!

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

If you've read my MasterClass reviews over the last couple years, but have been waiting for the right opportunity to buy, you might be interested in this Christmas deal. MasterClass is doing a "Buy One, Gift One" sale.  The promotion allows a new customer to purchase an All-Access Pass for $180 and receive another All-Access Pass to give to someone else at no additional charge.

Also if a customer has already purchased a single class for $90, they can upgrade to the All-Access Pass for an additional $90 and still receive another All-Access Pass to give as a gift.

Each class runs about 5-6 hours and comes with a workbook and often valuable supplementary materials. For instance, if you take Shonda Rhimes's class, you get the series bible for Grey's Anatomy, the original 10-page pitch document for the series, and the pilot scripts for both Grey's and Scandal.

As I've said in my reviews, I consider the Ron Howard class on directing to be essential for anyone who wants to be a film director. I absolutely will guarantee its value. If there's someone in your life who might find this of value, definitely consider gifting them the All-Access Pass. To help you out, I've included links below to the reviews I've written for the writing and filmmaking-related classes, as well as links to the full roster if that helps convince you that this purchase will be worthwhile for your interests.

And best of all, if you use any of these links, I get a commission, so it's like giving a gift to a friend or family member AND me!

Again, you can purchase that All-Access Pass and get one to gift here.

Prior MasterClass Reviews:
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (review)
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing (review)
Ron Howard Teaches Directing (review)
Shonda Rhimes Teaches TV Writing (review)
Judd Apatow Teaches Comedy (review)
Steve Martin Teaches Comedy (review)
Samuel L. Jackson Teaches Acting (review)
Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting (review)

The full MasterClass roster:

Spike Lee teaches Filmmaking
Judd Apatow teaches Comedy
Malcolm Gladwell teaches Writing
Martin Scorsese teaches Filmmaking
Werner Herzog teaches Filmmaking
Ken Burns teaches Documentary Filmmaking
Mira Nair teaches Independent Filmmaking
David Lynch Teaches Creativity and Film
Jodie Foster Teaches Filmmaking

Shonda Rhimes teaches TV Writing
Aaron Sorkin's Masterclass on TV Writing
David Mamet teaches Dramatic Writing
Steve Martin teaches Comedy
Judy Blume teaches Writing
Margaret Atwood teaches Creative Writing
James Patterson teaches Writing
R.L. Stein teaches Writing for Young Audiences
Dan Brown teaches Writing Thrillers
David Sedaris Teaches Storytelling and Humor
Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling
Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing
Joyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short Story
Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing
David Baldacci Teaches Mystery and Thriller Writing
Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry

Samuel L. Jackson teaches Acting
Helen Mirren teaches Acting
Natalie Portman Teaches Acting

Christina Aguilera's MasterClass 
deadmau5's MasterClass 
Herbie Hancock teaches Jazz
Hans Zimmer teaches Film Scoring
Reba McEntire teaches Country Music
Usher teaches Performance
Tom Morello teaches Electric Guitar
Carlos Santana teaches the Art and Soul of Guitar
Danny Elfman Teaches Music for Film
Timbaland Teaches Producing and Beatmaking
Itzhak Perlman Teaches Violin

Stephen Curry teaches Basketball
Serena Williams teaches Tennis
Garry Kasparov teaches Chess
Misty Copeland Teaches Ballet Technique and Artistry
Simone Biles Teaches Gymnastics Fundamentals

Wolfgang Puck teaches Cooking
Gordon Ramsay teaches Cooking.
Gordon Ramsay teaches Cooking Techniques II: Restaurant Recipes at Home
Thomas Keller teaches Cooking
Thomas Keller teaches Cooking Techniques II: Meats, Stocks and Sauces
Dominique Ansel teaches French Pastry Fundamentals
James Suckling teaches Wine Appreciation
Aaron Franklin Teaches Texas-Style BBQ

Bob Iger Teaches Business Strategy and Leadership
Anna Wintour Teaches Creativity and Leadership

Bob Woodward Teaches Investigative Journalism
Doris Kearns Goodwin Teaches U.S. Presidential History and Leadership
David Axelrod and Karl Rove teach Campaign Strategy

Jane Goodall teaches Conservation
Marc Jacobs teaches Fashion Design
Annie Leibovitz teaches Photography
Chris Hadfield teaches Space Exploration
Daniel Negreanu teaches Poker
Paul Krugman teaches Economics and Society
Jimmy Chin teaches Adventure Photography
Will Wright teaches Game Design and Theory
Penn and Teller Teach the Art of Magic
Phil Ivey Teaches Poker Strategy

Monday, November 4, 2019

Why Hollywood Assistants are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore

So let's have a talk about the realities of being a Writers' Assistant, but not about the demands of the job. If you're interested in those, check out my Writers' Assistant Rules here.

There's a conversation that's recently exploded in Hollywood, an inevitable release of tension that had been building over a year for those who'd been paying attention. The short version: Writers' Assistants and Script Coordinators unionized about two years ago, finally locking in salary rates that made their wages livable... provided certain conditions like a 60-hour a week guarantee applied. Studios, seeing an opportunity to step on the throats of peons who dared to stand up for themselves, started cutting hours and overtime, sending takehome pay back into the Stone Age.

With this resentment building up over the last year, it's not a surprise that John August and Craig Mazin's recent episode of Scriptnotes, "Assistants Aren't Paid Nearly Enough," became a flashpoint for conversation. That conversation exploded on Twitter when writer Liz Alper coined the hastag #PayUpHollywood, which became the center of conversation for how assistants are exploited and underpaid. Many former and current assistants aired their grievances publicly.

For those who didn't want to share their stories openly, Liz provided a like for anonymous submissions. You can find that here.

This weekend, there was tangible proof this conversation was reaching beyond twitter, as the LA Times covered this movement. A choice excerpt:

Hannah Davis, now a script coordinator for the HBO show “Perry Mason,” recalled how during her first job three years ago as a writer’s assistant at a television network, she received a letter from the network’s accountant telling her she had gone over the allotted lunch budget and the overage would be deducted from her paycheck. Davis made $600 a week, and one of her tasks was ordering lunch for the writers room. 

“I was a baby PA and it wasn’t cool to tell a writer, ‘Sorry you want extra salmon; we can’t afford it,” she said. She was lucky: The writers offered to pool together $50 a month to cover any future lunch budget overruns.

Stories like this are not uncommon, but I want to add some elements that no one talks about when you first chase a Writers' Assistant job. I’m going to explain in very clear terms why making assistants scrape for any kind of raise is nothing more than an exercise in power-tripping that doesn’t save any real money. Current union minimum rate for writers’ assistant is $14.57/hr. At 60 hrs a week that’s $1019.90. It’s... livable.

60 hours a week used to be the standard. But like I said earlier, studios are departing from that to punish the unionization. Some approve NOTHING over 50 hours, which makes that rate come out to $728.50/wk That’s a loss of over $300/wk, $1200/month. That’s a rent payment for someone.

But hey the studio saved $300/week. In a 20-week room, that’s $6000 for the entire season!

Do you know how pathetically little $6000 is in terms of a show’s production budget? A STAFF WRITER (the lowest paid writer on staff) on that same show is making $4,170 a WEEK. That’s $83,400 a season.

$6000 saved is SEVEN PERCENT of what the CHEAPEST writer makes.

The next level up is Story Editor, who makes $6,797 a week, or $135,940 a season. So that $6000 saved is 4.4 PERCENT of their salary.

Imagine how small that % gets when I’m comparing it to a showrunner getting script fees on top of their hefty paycheck. Or hell, the non-writing (often non-WORKING) Executive Producer fees. Studios and show accountants are screwing assistants over for comparative PENNIES.

It’s not about saving money. It’s about disrespecting assistant because they can. They’re telling them how little they are valued. Remember that.

OH! Also if they’re messing with your hours it screws your insurance. On your first show, you need 600 hours in a period to qualify for 6 month of coverage, then 400 hours banked/per coverage period after that.

60 hours a week means in 20 weeks you earn 1200 hrs... a year of coverage. 50 hrs a week means you earn 1000. EXACTLY enough for a year, so you’d better not miss ANY hours. (Paid Holidays only pay you 8 hours a day, not 12, so if Labor Day falls in your 20 weeks, you come up 4 hours short.)

And at 40 hrs/week... well you got six months of coverage and another 200 hours banked, so you’d better hustle and get a new gig fast!

There are no compelling reasons to put assistants through this hell by not adhering to a 60-hour guarantee. They do a lot of work and provide invaluable help to the shows they work on. This is not a job where you can plug in just anyone and expect them to thrive. The fact that there are hundreds of people seeking these jobs for every one that gets employed does NOT mean that all of them are capable of doing it.

The main reason assistants put up with this is because there used to be an expectation of an apprenticeship component to these jobs. If you put in your time, you'd get a script and maybe even get staffed in a timely fashion. It wasn't expected you'd sit at the assistant level for nearly a decade before getting your shot, but that's another grievance that's coming to the forefront. Assistants are speaking up about how many of them are dealing with bosses who have no interest in advancing them.

If you want to see an example of a showrunner who really gets it, listen to friend-of-the-blog Jeffrey Lieber. Here's his take on the pace that writers' assistants should be advancing at.

Jeff gets it. If only we had a town full of showrunners like Jeff Lieber, they could really stand up to studios who would be happy to pay assistants with a lump of coal. Then again, with enough pressure, coal becomes a diamond, so let's keep that pressure up.

Monday, September 9, 2019

The TV Writer Spec Episode Database

Update 9/25/23: Added spec by Carlos Cisco.

Update 5/3/22: Added spec by Jeff Lowell.

Update 2/15/20:
Added specs by Jose Molina.

Update 9/17/19: Added specs by Diane Ademu-John, Ian MacIntyre, Matt Okumura, Jeane Wong.

Update 9/10/19: Added specs by Julie Plec, Akela Cooper, Helen Shang, Brig Munoz-Liebowitz, David Iserson, Brandon Margolis & Brandon Sonnier.

Update 9/9/19: Added specs by Aaron Ginsburg & Wade McIntyre, Sarah Watson, and Gillian Horvath.

About a year ago, I started a Twitter conversation with pro writers about the spec episodes that got them staffed or noticed for the first time. The result was a lot of amusing answers (Julie Plec wrote a BUFFY!) and informative (many people wrote SEVERAL specs until they finally broke in.)

This past weekend, a similar topic came up again on Twitter, as a debate sparked if writers should still do spec episodes instead of focusing on original pilots. Many writers will tell you that speccing an existing show will teach you the valuable skill of mimicry, which is essential to succeeding as a staff writer.

This time, there was also real conversation about creating an archive of the pro spec episodes. To my surprise a lot of very successful and established writers were willing to make their earliest spec episodes available. Many seemed tickled by sharing these with a wider audience and so I've volunteered to curate this database.

If you're a pro writer and you want your spec to join this archive, email me at zuulthereader at gmail and I will be happy to add you to the list along with as many of your old specs as you wish to submit. If you want to give a little context for those specs, please do.

To keep everything together, I'll make all updates on this post, listing the specs alphabetically by the writer's last name. It's my hope to make this a useful resource for emerging writers who have an interest in seeing how writers they admire got started by writing for other shows.

I'm also putting my money where my mouth is. I've already made available my spec for an alternate season 3 premiere of 13 Reasons Why (full story on that here), but for the first time, I'm posting my spec episode of Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23. My earlier post on that spec is here.

Without further ado, here's the TV Writer Spec Episode Database:

Diane Ademu-John (Empire, The Originals) - Deadwood

Angelina Burnett (Halt and Catch Fire, Genius) - Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
  • "The one door I remember this opening for me was a meeting with the showrunner for New Amsterdam (not the one now, the one from a long time ago). He thought it was really funny, and that I should try to get it to Sorkin (I never did). And though I didn't get the staff writer gig, he did hire me as his assistant with a possibility of a freelance. Then the strike happened half way through the season so... No freelance. I got staffed right after the strike, but I can't remember which script got me that meeting. Might have been this one?" 
Carlos Cisco (Star Trek: Discovery) - Parks & Recreation
  • "This is the second spec I ever wrote (first was Justified and I can't seem to find the PDF), and my only true foray into straight comedy. It seemed to work since it got me in the NHMC TV writers fellowship where I promptly shifted to drama and foolishly wrote a Walking Dead spec that was rendered irrelevant 2 weeks after I finished because they killed Rick's wife! Last time I ever specced heavily serialized shows!" 
Akela Cooper (Luke Cage, American Horror Story) - Supernatural

Justin Doble (The Lord of the Rings, Stranger Things) - Justified, Parenthood
  • "The PARENTHOOD got me into the Warner Brothers Writers' Workshop and the JUSTIFIED I wrote in the workshop and it got me my first staff job on FRINGE." 
Jay Faerber (Supergirl, Zoo)- Burn Notice
  • "This is what got me into the WB program back in 2010." 
Glenn Farrington (Roswell, New Mexico) - The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family
  • "They both were also the ones that got me into the running for the ABC writer’s program."
Matthew Federman & Stephen Scaia (Blood & Treasure, Limitless) - The West Wing
  • "For context, [we] were PAs on The West Wing and decided to write one together, inspired by a news article. It began our writing partnership and launched our career. So always read the news, kids!"
Aaron Ginsburg & Wade McIntyre (New Amsterdam, The 100) - The Office, Rescue Me
  • "Our The Office got us into the WB writing program. Our Rescue Me helped get us our first agent." 
Marc Guggenheim (Carnival Row, Arrow) - The West Wing
  • "[This spec] got me all my first gigs."
Joe Henderson (Lucifer, 11.22.63) - Dexter, The O.C.

Gillian Horvath (Beauty and the Beast, Primeval: New World) - Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Quantum Leap (More info available on Gillian's site here.)
  • "My QUANTUM LEAP was my third spec. It got me my first agent and got read at Universal, leading to a NORTHERN EXPOSURE that I sprinted to finish when the QL guys wouldn't read my QL. That got me a freelance QL. My next, a BUFFY, was still getting me jobs 10 years after cancellation."
David Iserson (Mozart in the Jungle, Mr. Robot) - Seinfeld
  • "Please note that the spec I submitted was something I wrote my Junior year of high school and I haven't touched it since except to format it."
Niceole Levy (Cloak and Dagger, Shades of Blue) - The Closer, The Good Wife
  • "'The Closer' got me into the CBS program. I wrote my 'Good Wife' while in the program, and it got me a ton of meetings." 
Jeff Lowell (Spin City, Manhattan Love Story) - The Larry Sanders Show

Ian MacIntyre (Degrassi: Next Class, Inspector Gadget) - Parks and Recreation.
  • "[My] Parks & Rec spec got me my first full-season staffing job on Degrassi: Next Class (Netflix). 
P. J. Marino (Captain Tsunami's Army) - The Simpsons
  • "I wrote this Simpsons spec back in 2002. It was only the second script I'd ever written (I'd also written an original pilot). It won 2nd Place in the Scriptapalooza contest, and got me a meeting w/ a big literary manager. She gave me a huge confidence boost to continue. I'm still not WGA, but this year I got my first feature produced, with two other features in negotiations for options." 
Brandon Margolis & Brandon Sonnier (LA's Finest, The Blacklist) - Common Law 

Jose Molina (Agent Carter, Firefly) - The X-Files, Law & Order

Brig Munoz-Liebowitz (Abby's, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) - Girls 

Matt Okumura (Blood & Treasure) - The Handmaid's Tale.

Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries, Legacies) - Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Thomas Reyes (The Great North) - Silicon Valley
  • "The Silicon Valley spec got me into the Warner Bros Writers Workshop. It was also a semifinalist at the Austin Film Festival. I still use it as a sample (it got me showrunner meetings this staffing season)."
Barry Schkolnick (In Plain Sight, The Good Wife) - The Sopranos
  • "Some context: I wrote this script because I fell in love with the show from the start and was in-between gigs and needed a new piece of material to show. I also wanted to break away from the purely procedural style of Law & Order which had come to define me in the marketplace. It led pretty quickly to a lot of meetings and then a co-producer gig on Peter Berg’s “Wonderland” (short-lived medical drama about Bellevue mental hospital on ABC). This was also the last spec I wrote, as I started writing original pilots on assignments within a short period. Since then I only write originals on spec because, as you know, the marketplace for writing samples changed, and they can also be sold!" 
Brian Michael Scully (co-writer on THE MAKING OF STAR WARS EPISODE VIII and the writer of GENESIS) - Star Trek: Voyager
  • "It was the third I wrote and submitted [to the Star Trek "open spec" program.] The rules were you could only submit two if you had no reps. When my first two were rejected ("Pseudo" and "Chimera"), I submitted this third spec under the name Mike Scully and used my grandmother's address. As Al Bundy once said, "It's only cheating if you get caught." Five days after I started writing it, "Mortal Coil" aired and it was almost identical to the themes I think I was going for (I say I think because I wrote this over 21 years ago, who the hell knows what I was thinking then). I was too stubborn to rebreak and write from a different angle. So I just moved forward and sent in anyway. To this day, I still cannot fathom how that show read this script and called me to pitch. I really don't."
Helen Shang (Lord of the Rings, 13 Reasons Why) The Big Bang Theory, Once Upon a Time

Dan Steele (Faking It, Hart of Dixie) - How I Met Your Mother

Sarah Watson (The Bold Type, Parenthood) - Gilmore Girls
  • "This got me staffed onto: Lipstick Jungle, The Middleman, And Parenthood! I don't think there's a title page on it and I can't for the life of me remember what year I wrote it. I think I called it 'The Bell Jar Jar Binks.'"
Jeane Wong (Arrow) - iZombie
  • "Got me into wotv and abc finalist. Opened development/selling stuff for me."

Bonus: I'll also be tracking the "infamous" gimmick spec episodes that have gained notoriety over the years. If you know of one worthy of inclusion, let me know and I'll take a look at it.

SEINFELD  - "The Twin Towers" (9/11 episode) by Billy Domineau

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Writers' Assistant Rules - the complete list

As I've been working as a Writers' Assistant for a while now, I've started compiling a list of Writers' Assistant Rules. If this sounds a little familiar to you, I'll cop to having been inspired by Jeffrey Liber's Showrunner Rules, which you can find here.

This started as a thread on Twitter. You can find the original tweet here:

Every now and then I add a few more rules, but I've hit most of the obvious points. My list isn't nearly as comprehensive as Jeff's, owing to the fact that there's a lot less to a Writers' Assistant job than running an entire show. Still this is a good way for me to outline the most important responsibilities I have in my job.

If you'd rather see the Rules transcribed, just keep reading:

I have two universal Writers Assistant rules:

1) Photograph the Board every night.

2) in an appendix to the daily notes, I always include a transcript of the Board as it existed at day’s end. It’s a good quick reference if someone doesn’t want to read the full discussion

The third rule is that every room will operate slightly differently so be adaptable. But if you’re lucky, you get feedback.

On my last show, week 2, the Co-Ep sent me a late night email - subject: “Your notes.”

My first thought was “I’m in trouble,” but when I opened it, it continued: “Have been spectacular as I’m going through my story area. Really clear, you have everything down in an organized fashion that shows how nicely you understand story telling.”

I let go of a lot of anxiety about the notes after that.

A few weeks later, the SP had a specific request about how she wanted the notes for her ep handled (I don’t remember exactly, which suggests it was easily accommodated. The point is - make sure there’s a dialogue so you’re serving them.)

Btw, I still have that email because of Rule 4: save EVERY email.

Writers’ Assistant Rule 5: let the Writers’ PA see how you work, even if just for an afternoon. Then, have them take notes, even just for a bit. Eventually they WILL end up covering for you and you want them prepared and confident

Writers’ Assistant Rule 6: taught to me by aforementioned Co-EP, print out the notes each day and file them in a binder that you keep within reach at all time. MUCH easier to hunt through when you need to refer to an old discussion

This should be higher than Writers’ Assistant Rule 7, but... when the Showrunner says something - especially a final ruling on a story discussion - BOLD it. That way, if people read nothing else, they will have that important info jumping off the page at them

Writers’ Assistant Rule 8 (optional): we had one wall that was just for breakdowns of every ep of the season (so we could track where upcoming plot points would land.) At the bottom of each episode’s column, I listed which recurring players appeared

This was so if someone had a 7-episode contract, we could quickly see how many appearances they had left if we thought this might be an ep they could sit out.

Writers’ Assistant Rule 9: be early. I often beat the Writers PA to the office. Rarely did something demand my attention before the room assembled, but it was an easy time to talk to some of the staff. You hear a lot of great stories that way.

Writers Assistant Rule 10: you will never regret being familiar with the resumes of your writers. This may include being aware of which showrunners they have worked for before.

Writers Assistant Rule 11: since showrunners are often in and out of the room and the rest of the staff rotates to being on-script and on-set, you may be the only person in The Room every day. Recognize that responsibility and become the resource The Room needs.

Writers’ Assistant Rule 12: I’ve sat at both the table using a laptop and at my own desk with a desktop. I actually prefered the desk. Keeping me at an arm’s length meant I couldn’t throw my two cents in on a whim and saved me from making a LOT of bad pitches.

(Note: I said “a LOT” not “all of them.”) Also, watching from a distance gives you a better vantage point on the room dynamics.

Writers Assistant Rule 13: the Room is closed, the office is dead. Be careful about being the guy or girl who’s always asking to leave ultra early. And if you ask and get a “No,” DO NOT be pissy about having to kill time in a quiet office.

(Rule inspired by someone I know who’s dealing with an assistant asking to leave mid-afternoon so they can go to the gym, and who went over my friend’s head to ask after being told “we need you here.” Consider this a good Assistant rule in general.)

Writers’ Assistant Rule 14: if you’ve hit the part in the season where the room is closed and half the office is out. Be generous and split the early departures with the other support staff. Cover for the PA and SA so they can leave early some of those days.

Writers’ Assistant Rule 15: if a non-writing EP emails asking to be on the room notes distro, report the request to your showrunner and verify permission before letting them get the daily notes.

Writers Assistant Rule 16: sensitive topic - when crediting ideas to specific staff members, be JUDICIOUS. You might end up inadvertently making people fear the notes are keeping score, and thus upset when one of their ideas isn’t cited by name.

(Obviously this doesn’t apply to the showrunner. And there will be exceptions where it might help to know, “this is a Rick pitch,” but again... exercise care with this.)

Writers Assistant Rule 17 (failed): know the correct spelling AND pronunciation of all characters and institution names on your show on Day 1. Otherwise, Week 5 someone ELSE will Google them and realize since they’ve been pronouncing it wrong, YOU have been spelling it wrong.

Writers’ Assistant Rule 18: you don’t HAVE to keep notes for the fake show your staff breaks when they’re sick of their real show... but you probably won’t regret it either.

Writers’ Assistant Rule 19: take note of who on staff is NOT meshing with the show and ask yourself why. Is it their personality? Their work habits? Their tone? Find the show’s Goofus and Gallant and learn accordingly.

Writers’ Assistant Rule 20: the room often starts off with bullshitting about the previous night’s shows. If you watch what the room watches, this is a chance to participate. Factor that in the night before when deciding what to timeshift.

Writers’ Assistant Rule 20A: in that scenario make sure someone ELSE is the first person to draw blood on another show. You never know who on staff knows someone on that show.

Writers’ Assistant Rule 21: in general, wait for your bosses to ASK to read your specs. At the same time, make sure they know you want to be a writer. They have to be aware of your goals to help you with them.

Writers’ Assistant Rule 22: if you got this job at age 23 because your uncle is Bob Paramount and the show had no choice, do NOT fuck up the opportunity to learn from the showrunner and staff and DO NOT take this access for granted.

Writers’ Assistant Rule 23 - if there’s a useless Johnny Paramount (nephew to Bob Paramount) on the support staff, these assholes usually defeat themselves, but documenting their screw-ups can’t hurt because when they implode, you might want receipts.

Writers’ Assistant Rule 24 - when you can, use Fade In. The staff will probably be supplied Final Draft, but spread the Fade In gospel for the inevitable Final Draft Crash.

Writers’ Assistant Rule 25 - as @matthewfederman and @GennHutchison demonstrate in this thread, there are some MAJOR room issues (like recording) that are NOT universal at all. (But "Writers Assistant Guidelines" doesn’t sound sexy)

Writers’ Assistant Rule 26 - always have AT LEAST two specs in your portfolio ready for professional eyes if asked. Ideally, together they should paint a consistent picture of the kind of writer you are.

Writers’ Assistant Rule 26A - this also goes for episode pitches for the show you’re assisting on. Be prepared in case your moment comes unexpectedly

Writers’ Assistant Rule 27 - if you’re doing social for the show and posting pics of The Room, ALWAYS triple-check you have blurred The Board or that there are no spoilers for upcoming episodes in anything that appears in frame

Writers' Assistant Rule 28 - Tempting as it is, do NOT murder the Staff Writer who interrupts the showrunner with a tangential pitch as the showrunner was clearly seconds into their "let's call it a day" wrap-up

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Learning from my own journey as a writer

I've been thinking a lot about my own journey as a writer and what I can take from it to apply as lessons to some of you who are just starting out.

My first feature script began as an assignment for a screenwriting class in 2002. By that point I'd made a number of short films and had even run a campus TV series, where 7 of the scripts were mine. So I already had some experience translating my ideas to the page before this screenwriting assignment. I remember this was a story idea I'd had ever since my senior year of high school. At the time, I thought I had enough for a 30 minute short film (I had no idea the shorts I'd be making in school were to be closer to 5-10 min at most.) Over the next four years I kept expanding the idea with red herrings and twists until my treatment became longer and longer.

I vividly recall that I had that document in front of me one day as my professor started lecturing about the three-act structure and how most narratives we knew fit into that paradigm. I quite clearly remember scanning the document until I found the moment that would be my INCITING INCIDENT. I put a star next to that beat. Then I drew a line across the page where the division between Act One and Act Two would fit. Then another line at the midpoint, and a third line at the climax of Act Two. Just from eyeballing it, I could see that in terms of pacing, those moments were landing more or less precisely where they would in a basic three-act film.

I hadn't used any kind of Save the Cat template when I broke the story. I wasn't thinking about three acts or plot points - but I had internalized so much about films that I essentially did it on instinct. Recalling several of the other stories that came out of that class, I know that isn't always a given.

In this post, I talk about the script I had under my arm when I moved to LA, and just so you don't think I'm saying I had it all figured out: It was written on Microsoft Word and was in Times New Roman. Fortunately on my first internship a fellow aspiring took me aside and explained how I needed to fix it so that it matched industry standards.

Once I did that, the script ballooned an additional 18 pages in length. Oops. I immediately set to work finding what I could cut to make it more manageable. In an embarrassingly short amount of time, I'd taken not 20, but almost 30 pages out of the script. This leaner version was what I presented to the people at my internship and when they came back with notes, I took them to heart and did a decently sized rewrite. So for that reason, I log this as my 2003 script.

Thus, including that script, since 2003 I have written:
  • 9 feature scripts (two of them with partners) 
  • 4 original comedy pilots (one with a partner.) 
  • 4 original drama pilots (one with a partner.)
  • 6 spec episodes. 
That's a grand total of 23 scripts in 17 years, and if you look at the last 10 years, the numbers get even better.

Since 2009 the tally is:
  • 5 features 
  • 4 comedy pilots 
  • 4 drama pilots 
  • 5 spec episodes. 
Or 18 scripts in 10 years.

How many scripts should I write?

You will probably not sell your first script. You likely will not be hired off of your first script. And if you are lucky enough to get meetings off of your first script, the very first question you will get is "What else have you got?" soon followed by "What are you working on now?" When you get that first script to wear you want it, start planning your next one.

I have seen professional writers say that you should be able to turn out a new script in three months. I don't find that to be unreasonable. But that does not mean they are saying you need four new scripts a year. That's insanity. If you're just starting out - set the goal of one spec script a year. BUT that means that by the end of those 12 months, it's in its finished state. In other words - three months for the first draft and the remaining nine months to get notes, do major rewrites and really, really hone it. You should be able to do this and maintain a pretty good work/life balance too.

I personally get suspicious when I hear overeager writers say they churn out four new specs a year. Don't get so caught up that you end up valuing quantity over quality. Early on, no one's giving you any awards for how fast you work. For that matter, the learning curve on your first several scripts is pretty steep. As you rewrite and get feedback on your first couple scripts, the experience will teach you things about writing that can be applied to your later scripts. You need room for that sort of introspection and self-education to play out.

Walk, then run. It doesn't impress people when you say, "I'm on my fifth spec this year!"

Building the portfolio

When I started writing, I gave zero thought to how I was "branding" myself. I didn't see myself as "just" a horror writer or "just" a comedy writer. All I knew is that I'd get an idea for a story I really wanted to tell and I'd follow that muse. Looking backwards, I can see that the kinds of scripts I wrote were almost always a reaction to the LAST script I wrote. After spending a year in the world of a romantic comedy, that part of my brain was tapped out, but I had a GREAT idea for a genre-bending superhero courtroom thriller. And when I finished that, the next thing idea that sounded cool to me was a sequel to THE WIZARD OF OZ that was more in the tone of NARNIA. (This was JUST before the trend of mining existing IP really got big again.)

I was writing things that interested me, taking my varied influences and giving them a new spin, but none of those scripts fit well together. I tried to defend this at the time by saying I was a "genre-mixer." I'd take the concept we'd seen a billion times and try to subvert it or give it a new angle by adding another genre's tropes to it. It meant I was playing in a lot of different kinds of worlds and styles, but it confused people about the kind of writer I was.

Yes, there was the challenge of how none of this really fit in a neat box - and I can already hear the complaints of the special snowflakes about how Hollywood doesn't know how to recognize originality and only rewards mediocrity and the same old ideas. Yet if I'm truly honest with myself, I'm not heartbroken that none of those films got made. Genre-mixing often confuses an audience unless it's done very deftly. Get it wrong, and it's a fish with wings. That's what you get when you pitch "Superman meets Primal Fear."

Again, this is not me saying DON'T do this. sometimes it can help you find your own voice when you just follow where the muse takes you. Experiment! Mix it up! But at the end of the day, know that you are making it easier on yourself if you have the material that brands you as the right guy (or girl) for a particular kind of project.

I always describe that as making sure that your submissions tell a story about the kind of writer you are.

I'll give you an example - last year I applied to the Disney / ABC Writing Program. They require two script submissions - one original pilot and one spec episode of an existing show. These samples must match in terms of being both one-hours or both 30-minute shows. In other words, don't write a sitcom and submit STRANGER THINGS as your spec episode. My spec pilot was a dark teen drama thriller and my spec episode was a 13 REASONS WHY. They complimented each other - there was no confusion about the kinds of stories I could tell, about the tone I could play in, about the kinds of characters I could write for.

When I had the opportunity to submit to a showrunner recently, I gave them basically the same submissions except that I swaped out my "proper" 13 REASONS WHY spec for the one I wrote about last year and posted publicly. I did this because during my sit-down with the showrunner, the topic of that script came up and they thought it sounded like a rather clever idea. I think the gambit worked because they enjoyed the script quite a lot - more than I think they would have with the "playing it safe" version.

My most recent one hour drama pilot script started as a half-hour comedy spec pilot I wrote about nine years ago. It was a case where I had what I thought was a pretty unique concept and I leaned into the humor of it. But if you know me, I'm more of a drama writer, and the more I worked in TV drama, the more this half-hour stuck out like a sore thumb among my samples. Eventually as a thought exercise, I pondered - "What about that... but as a drama?"

By the time I was done, the lead of the comedy pilot was reduced to AT LEAST the third lead of the drama. The main POV character was someone who didn't even exist in the earliest version of the script and the second lead was a character who was on the second tier of characters in the original version. I think the script is MUCH better, but it is completely unlike the idea I started with about a decade ago. If you were to read the two, you'd definitely see the relationship and the common DNA, but it's crazy to realize how much of what was load-bearing on the first pilot got completely blown away on the second one.

The changes that got me there mostly didn't happen all at once. It was an ever-increasing number of "What ifs" that I flung at the original concept, each one opening doors that led me to further What ifs that hadn't occurred to me before. I'm not always the best person at drastically reinventing the wheel on some rewrites. This experience is one I'll reflect back on when I need that extra push to REALLY shake things up.

Ultimately, what specifically works for me might not work for you, but I'm a big believer in the value of self-reflection. If something's not working in your process, the answers can usually be found within.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Ten years on Twitter and everything that's come with that

Today is my 10-year Twitter anniversary, and it arrives just days after I crossed the 48,000 follower mark. That's really mind-boggling to me. I wouldn't normally celebrate something like a social media anniversary, but this is a case where just about everything I've achieved professionally in the last decade traces right back to Twitter.

Every single job I've had in TV came from a Twitter contact I made in the business.

Every single interview for my YouTube channel was the result of a twitter relationship.

There are too many real life friends to count that I have made through twitter, though at this point, I'd say it's easily two dozen and probably closer to three dozen.

And then there's the really cool stuff. I've gotten to know writers whose work I've followed for years. I've had drinks and meals with a few of my favorite actors. I've gotten to meet and spend time with creators whose work has been a part of my life as far back as my early childhood. At one point, I even had a meeting with one of my all-time idols. It's not just cool - it's incredibly surreal.

So while there are a large number of interactions that are and will remain merely social media relationships, there are real, substantial contacts I have cultivated there, both personal and professional. When people ask me for advice on getting started, "Get on Twitter and follow people you're interested in" is always at the top of my list.

This doesn't mean you should expect that within a month all the doors of Hollywood will be open to you, and you shouldn't look at it just as a pipeline to everyone you consider successful in Hollywood. Get to know people who are on your level or just a little higher. You're all gonna rise in this business together and more than likely you'll be in a position to help each other.

Have something to offer the conversation. My follower list grew because I had content from the blog that was drawing people to my feed. What I wrote was of interest to people, and therefore they saw value in following me. My tweets soon became an extension of that, which only helped increase awareness of me. As long as I'm contributing to the conversation on Twitter, I keep being discovered by new people and develop stronger relationships with those I know already.

It opened a lot of doors for me, and if you know how to play your cards right, it can open doors for you too.

Just be smart about it and don't be like that weirdo who in his first interactions with me directly insulted what I choose to tweet about and then since then has sent a half-dozen tweets asking for advice or help. I block assholes and Trump supporters mercilessly. So tweet smartly.

You can find me on Twitter at @BittrScrptReadr

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

My take on the issues surrounding Netflix removing 13 REASONS WHY's graphic suicide scene

Earlier this week, Netflix announced it was making a fairly surprising change to 13 REASONS WHY's first season finale. After two years of controversy, the streaming service decided to completely remove the graphic scene of Hannah Baker getting into the bathtub and slitting her wrists. The scene had been a flashpoint for debate since it debuted, with some critics arguing it risked provoking imitative behavior.

There's a pretty thorough write-up on the backstory of this debate on The Hollywood Reporter.

Since I've blogged a lot about 13 REASONS WHY, going so far as to make public my spec episode of the show, I wasn't surprised when a regular reader went to my old post discussing this issue and asking if I had any reaction to the edit. I do. And I've given this matter a lot of thought - so much thought that I feel obligated to do more than just give a reaction to a digital platform essentially erasing something from existence almost entirely.

I wade into this with zero illusions I will change anyone's mind on either side of the debate. If you're against the show, I don't think anything in my power will persuade you any different.

There are a lot of issues tied up in this so let me try to break them down so my position is clear.

Where do I stand on media depictions of suicide? My understanding is that there's a far more conclusive link between the reporting on real suicides and the result of suicide contagion than there has been demonstrated to exist between fictional suicides and any resulting copycats. I feel like the lack of understanding about that distinction is certainly a factor in the thinkpieces that have debated this with regard to 13 REASONS WHY.

This Vox article speaks somewhat to this point and talks to experts who note that the findings of a recent study that purported to link the show to a rise in suicide rates, "should be interpreted with caution."

felt that this report that tried to show a link between the debut in the show and a rise in male suicides was pretty inconclusive. Plenty of other people got thinkpieces out of showing the fallacy of assuming correlation was causation. The report didn't even demonstrate that any of the people who killed themselves in that peak had even been exposed to the show. But for people who read only the headlines, in their mind, this study proved the show got people killed.

I want to take this opportunity to say that I believe most of the people upset by these findings are genuine in their concern. I think the study itself has a lot of problems, problems that are compounded by media coverage that took the most sensational spin on the findings themselves. I'm not here to insult anyone who saw an article about that and got misled by the framing.

If you were to ask me what I really would like to see, it would be a comprehensive study on the impact of fictional suicides. It'd be great if that study wasn't so myopic as looking only at 13 REASONS WHY. There's plenty of suicide media out there. No one ever brings up A MILLION LITTLE THINGS despite my feeling that it handled their core suicide FAR more irresponsibly in terms of what motivated the character.

Do I think the show romanticizes suicide? I don't. I really don't. It's clearly not the intent and I think it requires some amount of bad faith on the part of the interpreter to come up with that reaction. I feel like the arguments for this position do a lot of cherry-picking. Some of this goes to how we evaluate a creative work. Briefly, let's tackle two questions:
  • Did the creators intend to romanticize suicide? This seems to be an emphatic no. I've read dozens of published interviews with the writers and it's clear that their intent was 180 degrees removed from that, to the point where they explicitly avoided common pitfalls of these scenes, such as the "beautiful corpse," or showing her drifting off peacefully.
  • Does the work itself romanticize suicide? I don't believe it does. I personally don't see how anyone watches the show and comes away thinking, "The message of this whole thing is that if bad things happen to you, you should kill yourself." I don't understand the mindset that sees the pain Hannah's death causes so many - particularly the "good" characters of Clay and her parents - and thinks the show is endorsing that act. 
I make this next comparison very cautiously, but it reminded me of people who were offended by THE WOLF OF WALL STREET because they came away thinking the movie lionized Jordan Belfort. No one involved with that movie was trying to make that statement, nor does the movie really make him look heroic if you take it as a whole. But if you cherry pick things like, "He has sex with insanely hot women and more money than he knows what to do with," then yeah, you might come away with the feeling that "This is so cool."

Is it fair to hold creators accountable for some segment of the audience coming away with a completely incorrect understanding of the work? It's one thing to make them own what they're actually saying, but to take them to task what people erroneously THINK was being endorsed is an entirely different thing. That kind of thinking is a pathway to art that doesn't make any bold decisions for fear that the audience won't be able to follow.

All this is to say I don't want this to come down to an argument where the two sides are "I hate this and therefore it's bad" and "I like this and therefore it's good." If you hate Katherine Langford, or you think Brian Yorkey overwrites his dialogue, that's not really supporting data for "Why Netflix should erase this show." There are plenty of shows I dislike, hell, even shows that I think reflect some ugly values. I'll point it out, but I'll never say, "this should be wiped from existence."

Also, to challenge any claim that I'm a pure 13 REASONS WHY partisan, I'll toss out there that I really have no desire to defend a different controversial element of the show - the sexual assault and attempted school shooting in the season two finale. I have a lot of issues with that subplot both in concept and execution. Even so, I think I'd be bothered by the implications of wiping that scene from the record entirely, post-release.

Does this mean I think the show should be viewed by everyone? NO. Obviously, people at risk for depression and self-harm should be amply warned about the content. The same way we rely on trigger warnings for articles or videos dealing violence and sexual assault is exactly what we should do here. I don't think the answer will ever be a wholesale ban on a particular kind of media or story. I think the solution is to be more responsible about how that media is put into the world.

To give you an example, we know that when younger children are exposed to pornographic and sexual material at an early age, it can rewire their brains and severely impact their behavior and cognitive development. I don't think you'll ever see someone seriously propose "Let's ban pornography altogether" or "Let's ban all nudity or sexual activity from Netflix completely." There we understand that with warnings and content ratings and responsible parenthood we're doing what we can to protect people in need of protecting.

By the time I came to the show, they'd put warnings up on all the more intense episodes and for season two they were even more aggressive with their content warnings. I understand some of this outrage comes from the fact Netflix took a few weeks to add some of those extra warnings, and that's unfortunate.

Could someone still ignore the content warnings? Sure. Just like someone could ignore the warning not to take a hair dryer in the shower with them, or to not put metal in a microwave. If someone is determined to do something even after the risks are explicitly put there ahead of them, there's not much that would stop them anyway.

I'm wary of giving too much weight to anecdotal stories. For every person I've seen say the show was a dangerous trigger for those who self-harm, I've read posts and articles by people like this one by B.J. Colangelo, whose piece for Birth.Movies.Death explores how much she related to what Hannah was going through, how as a survivor of sexual assault and a nearly successful suicide attempt, she found the show powerful and effective at showing suicidal teens that suicide wasn't the answer.

Colangelo fits the profile of the sort of at-risk viewer we've been told we need to protect from this material - but the show didn't trigger her the way the show's detractors claimed it would. I don't offer this to refute the stories of those with the opposite experience, but merely to underline we can't know that there is a direct, always predictable reaction to the show, even within the at-risk subgroup where all the discussion is being focused.

I'm old enough to remember the heavy metal panic of the late 80s, when a lot of parents got concerned that subliminal messages in Judas Priest's music provoked two men to attempt suicide. It seems silly to our ears now. These were men who obviously had mental health issues and no causative link between the music and the suicides could really be made. This whole debate feels like the modern version of that.

There's a poetic irony to the articles I've read by people drawing a connection between specific suicides and exposure to the show. The concept of the show is that Hannah Baker is laying out the thirteen experiences that put her on the path to taking her own life. Each experience was instigated by a different person on the tapes.

When you watch the show, do you blame all of them for Hannah's suicide? I think many of these kids treated her poorly. The two who sexually assaulted her, one of them extremely violently, absolutely deserve to be punished for what they did to her. But did they kill Hannah Baker? Were their actions, taken individually, enough to make them culpable?

I don't believe they were, even if you choose to believe that it doesn't matter that many of the people named on the tapes had no intent to do that harm. Hannah's suicide was the culmination of the domino effect of mistreatment. Do we believe that Sheri, who knocked over a stop sign in an act of carelessness that later got another student killed, is as important a factor in Hannah's suicide as the boy who raped her?

No. We don't.

Bryce Walker raped Hannah Baker. There's no doubt he should be held accountable for that violence... but is he responsible for her suicide? Or is he just a very strong link in a long chain? The show presents Hannah's attempt at explaining what motivated her suicide, but in the end, the lesson seems to be that no one factor alone was the magic bullet that claimed Hannah.

And ultimately, isn't that what we're being asked to do of the show - to give it blame for a tragic result that was already set into motion by hundreds of other factors? There may be a strange form of comfort in being able to point at this boogeyman and say "This is what took someone I love away from me!" But it's never that easy, and the answer never is "Burn this, salt the earth below it and never speak of it again!"

"Okay, enough of this. Where do you stand on the removal of the scene?" 

If a creative work has been put out there, I'm always against the original version being made completely unavailable so it can be supplanted by a newer one. If Netflix wanted to put out this new version, while letting the old one co-exist, that's great. If they want to set the safer version as the default viewing option and make the "historical one" only available after going through menus and viewing addition warnings, I'm totally behind that too.

I have no beef with the existence of alternate versions as long as they don't erase what already was. Here, I'm speaking broadly. The same issue I have with "Greedo firing first" is the same issue I have with the removal of the suicide scene and the reframing of the subsequent discovery of Hannah's body by her parents - don't change the work I've seen and try to pretend it always was this way.

I'm aware that one motivation for these edits is that a new season will drop, and with that, new viewers will discover the show. I appreciate them giving the matter that kind of thought and sensitivity, but I still find this revisionist motivation to be troubling.
The other conversation to be had, the one that would have felt crass and reductive had I leapt here without treating the charged material with due sensitivity, is the morality behind any distributor being able to completely wipe something from the digital record. This was a lot harder to do in a world where physical media was prevalent, but we're trending to an era where most content is going to live digitally more than it will on DVDs and blurays.

Ponder if you will, the next Bill Cosby in every sense of that word - a successful groundbreaking comedian, someone who kicked in doors and was a pioneer for an entire race or class of people, the man who everyone who came after him pointed to as their influence. Then one day, like Bill Cosby, ugly details from his past arise. His series is cancelled.

No, not just canceled - digitally erased from every platform, made as inaccessible as if it never existed. GONE.

Our culture is our history. The thought that significant and influential parts of it could be completely erased from the record because of the misdeeds of another Bill Cosby or Louis CK is... chilling. I'm not morally comfortable with that. Even if I don't think I'll ever watch The Cosby Show again, it's still an important chapter of TV.

I can understand the rationale behind Netflix's decision while still be wary of the Pandora's Box it opens. So if you're asking me what I feel about these edits in the abstract sense, I'm concerned.

Do I think all of Netflix's concerns about the impact of the show on teens is in good faith? Yes, and as I said, I think the same of many of the concerned parents who read these somewhat shaky studies and came away with honest concern for what they read.

Do I think it will satisfy the anti-13 REASONS WHY advocates? No.

This won't end the conversation so much as it will stoke the passions on both sides. The show's creators speak often of hoping to start a conversation about suicide. For too long, that conversation has been less about the issues the show addresses and more about the harm the show is feared to do in speaking of those issues. I hope with this concession, Netflix has given all concerned parties a way to move forward and past the argument that has raged for two years now.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Interview with me on Comics Beat

Matt O'Keefe of Comics Beat did an interview with me covering a number of topics that included the origins of the Bitter Script Reader, writing spec episodes and how Twitter has opened doors for me.

You can check it out here.

Monday, May 20, 2019

BLOOD & TREASURE co-creator Matthew Federman talks blending treasure hunting with terrorists, focus groups, teaching history and staffing

This week marks the launch of CBS's new summer adventure series, BLOOD & TREASURE, detailing the adventures of a former FBI agent and a thief as they race to get to Cleopatra's remains before a madman who sells blood antiquities to fund terrorist attacks.

Matthew Federman is the series's co-creator and executive producer, with writing partner Stephen Scaia, this is his first series on the air after a long career in TV that began on JUDGING AMY and included such series as JERICHO and HUMAN TARGET (both of which he was on with friend-of-the-blog Robert Levine, who I interviewed long ago here.) His credits also include WAREHOUSE 13 and LIMITLESS.

Matthew was kind enough to answer a few questions about the series, the writing process that goes into blending an Indiana Jones-type romp with terrorism and what he looks for in a writing staff.

Unlike most of the shows that were just ordered off of pilot season, BLOOD & TREASURE was a straight-to-series order. Can you talk about how that impacts the creative process when your focus from the start is telling an entire season's story? Is it different breaking a season when you don't have a completed pilot as a proof of concept for the room to work on from the start?

My writing partner Stephen Scaia and I sold the show with a script and bible that laid out the first season—which would have been the same in either case. So going to straight to series didn’t really affect the creative process that much for us. We still started the room with figuring out the big picture stuff, how to make the arc we had work, and then diving into 102. It did mean starting without knowing who our actors were which is a little scary because you don’t know who you’re writing to, but our cast ended up being amazing and very much what we had imagined so we didn’t need to tweak things too much for them.

Here’s how it did affect things: our first episode ended up being huge, like 10-15 minutes over. They told us it was long and we kept cutting it at script stage but somehow it was still way long. Had it been a pilot we would have had to cut a lot of stuff that we loved to deliver it and since the show is so serialized we probably would have lost some key plot elements. But because we were straight to series we were able to move a chunk of 101 into 102 in editing (basically all of the original Act 4).

We had called it a two-parter anyway and in our hearts hoped that they would do a two hour premiere which we thought was the best way to launch the show based on our story. We were told in no uncertain terms that that would not happen. The issue wasn’t creative, just corporately it’s a thing CBS doesn’t do. Then when it came time to do focus groups the biggest issue that came from the groups was they didn’t like how it ended. Almost every question they had would have been solved by the old Act 4 that got moved, or the rest of 102. One of our great execs suggested they try testing 101/102 together for focus groups to see what affect it had and the change was stark—most of the issues went away immediately.

To our great relief they decided to air it as a two-hours pilot. Creative people knock focus groups but they really saved us in this case, and I give so much credit to the Studio and Network execs for being flexible and doing what was best for the show. They’ve been great collaborators. The other thing going straight-to-series affected was our big set—Antony and Cleopatra’s tomb—which launches the show. The set is crazy awesome. And really expensive. Like more expensive than a lot of pilots, for a set you’d only see once (as far as we knew). But because the cost was spread over 13 we could do it and really introduce the show with size and scope that you normally don’t see on Network TV. And then we had this giant, beautiful set just sitting there and we thought, okay, maybe we can get some more use out of it. So you’ll see versions of it again, including in the two-hour pilot in a flashback. We really got our money out of that space and in the end its very existence affected story.

The promotion material for the show underlines the fact that your villain is funding his terrorist activities with the sale of stolen antiquities. Can you talk about integrating this aspect of real-world terrorism into what also plays as an Indiana Jones-like treasure quest romp? 

We had learned that a major source of funding for ISIS (behind oil) was that they would loot antiquities from the regions they were in and sell them on what is now referred to as the “blood antiquities market.” Then (as with Palmyra) they would blow up the big structures they couldn’t move for PR value, drawing attention to their group. We thought we had a unique opportunity to talk about some real world issues around blood antiquities (a market created by wealthy people and museums) through the filter of a fun adventure show.

And while that seems counter-intuitive, we had a model in Indiana Jones for how to do it. The Nazis are real bad guys who committed vast atrocities. They give everything stakes—but the adventure is still fun because you’re with Indy and he has a great character story going on with Marion and the audience wants them to win—and get together. We decided to fictionalize our bad guy for a number of reasons, including not wanting to be insensitive, but also to give the show the ability to be a little lighter. We didn’t want it to feel like the show 24 with treasure.

There's a promotional video out where several of your actors talk about how the scripts integrate real history into the show's mythology. I'm sure that plenty of events are fictionalized. Can you give us some sense of the thought process behind where real history takes a left turn into BLOOD & TREASURE history? We know that this is a race to find Cleopatra, which hasn't been found yet in real life. How do you build that kind of quest in a way that feels credible and fun at the same time? 

Our thinking is, there’s the stuff in history we know—that stuff we don’t mess with. There’s the stuff we don’t know because the history is lost—that stuff we can play around with, so long as we’re not impugning anyone with how we fictionalize it, or making up anything that feels contradictory to known events or people.

I think it should be pretty clear when we’re saying something known or we’re playing in our sandbox, our characters—mostly Danny, sometimes Dr. Castillo—usually says some version of “We believed [X] was the case but what if [Y].” Our hope is it ignites an interest in history for people who can then search out the stuff we’re taking off from and learn more about it, but we need to do it in such a way that it doesn’t completely slow down the story to become a history lesson.

The same video also discusses how the show takes us to the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Cairo, Paris, London, the Alps, Turkey, Rome... and Boston. On any show you're going to have to deal with the logistics of location. When you're talking about a globe-trotting show that presumably doesn't have the budget to go anywhere. How much work goes into picking those locations, because I assume it's not a case where you can go, "The African desert fell out, we need the story to work for the woods of Vancouver."

We let the story dictate the locations at first. We knew the show would be Middle Eastern/Western Europe focused because of what our story was. The whole center of the season though we weren’t sure where we’d go. Our production is based in Montreal so we knew the looks/countries we could represent there. We had some ideas for where else we’d go that would make sense. But as the story went forward the writers pitched something that would mean going to Morocco which wasn’t planned and I said, “Let’s hold on and talk to Steve about how reasonable that is.”

Stephen was focused on the production side of things which eventually meant living up in Montreal and also taking a world-wide scouting trip to see locations before later going abroad to shoot. Steve talked about the idea with our producing partners and one of them said we could go to Morocco, and in fact get a lot of great looks for different places there. So a big part of our plan changed, but it started with the story.

What it comes down to is we know every episode should hop around a little, so we try to get the story working knowing those movements will be necessary. We talk a lot about building things modularly, which means the story can change locations, or even the planned action can change, but what happens story-wise doesn’t need to change (aside for some tweaks) because it’s about how our characters are either working together or failing to.

You've mentioned on Twitter that this was your fourth or fifth effort at doing a treasure hunt show. Can you talk about what was it about this show that got a green light and what might have been missing in those earlier attempts?

It absolutely got the green light this time because of the stakes that using the real world ISIS issue gave us. In the past we had to kind of narratively explain why culture and art were important so when it came down to people dying over them it would make sense…and it’s a tough buy for a lot of people despite that we know it’s true historically (including groups like the Monuments Men in WW2 that literally put themselves in danger to protect cultural heritage).

Looking back on it, I’m glad it took this long and this was the one that got made because Stephen and I are better writers and producers, we never could have made the show this way in the past because it wasn’t really being done. Also, our cast is amazing and our leads Matt Barr (Danny) and Sofia Pernas (Lexi) have this crazy chemistry that really pops off the screen and makes the show work on a level it never could have before. I’m not one of those people that says “everything happens for a reason” but in the case of this show it feels that way.

I'm curious what you looked for when you were assembling your room. You've worked on a number of shows, you've seen how plenty of staffs work. What was at the top of your mind when you were assembling your team for BLOOD & TREASURE?

We look for a staff that represents the places that the show would be going. Diversity wasn’t just a mandate we were given, it was for us a necessity to be able to tell this story that spans cultures and is about how they clash and how they work together which is basically the story of history. (Also with explosions! Don’t worry, it won’t feel like homework!). So we wanted a staff that could give an International perspective, and then we also looked for people that got the show, not just what the show did on the surface, i.e. “it’s fun” but people who saw the show we were really making beneath that.

One of our early meetings first season was with a brother/sister writing team (Siavash and Dana Farahani) who were born in Iran and lived as refugees for a time after their family fled. They mentioned an early scene in the script when Danny first comes to recruit Lexi to go on this adventure because he believes he needs her unique skillset how despite being locked up in a police car, Lexi isn’t convinced to go with Danny at first. The thing that changes her whole demeanor and shifts the scene is when Danny mentions the Pyramid that was attacked (which starts our show). Lexi, an Egyptian, immediately loses her snarky combativeness—jaded as she is you can see how affected she is by the loss to her country and her culture. It’s the appeal to that loss that gets her to go on the journey.

They got that moment in a way a lot of Americans wouldn’t have. It was the moment I knew we’d be hiring them. Because they got that the show was about this intersection between history, culture and identity—which then we put through the fun filter.

We joke that the show should taste like cotton candy and then expand into a steak in your stomach. It is intended to be a fun adventure, and in a TV landscape of very dark shows (many of which I love) we think that is something people will be hungry for. If a family sits and watches the show, the fun is probably all the kids will see and we think that’s great. But hopefully the parents see there’s something more going on. Everyone we hire is someone we think can bring that dual perspective to the show: how can this say something while also being a ton of fun?

If you're looking for more of Matthew's insight into TV writing, check out this three part twitter thread about what he learned running the writers' room during season one. (All parts linked here.)

BLOOD & TREASURE premieres Tuesday, May 21 on CBS at 9pm,