Thursday, January 10, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts - The Ron Moore Story

One of my favorite stories to tell is the time back in college where I had an actual communication with a showrunner I admired and was completely inept in knowing how to capitalize on it. I'm often hard on overeager writers who jump the gun in pushing their script on someone, trying to get somewhere before they're ready. We've ALL made that mistake, and today I'm going to tell you about mine.

Back in school, I had long wanted to be a screenwriter and a director, but hadn't given much thought to TV writing. All of that changed when I - being a fan of Deep Space Nine - came across a bulletin board one of the show's co-executive producers/writers, Ronald D. Moore, frequented. He regularly answered questions submitted by fans, often dealing with the production process and the evolution of storylines and character development. It was my first real in-depth look inside the process of creating a television show. I learned a lot about writing just by reading his posts.

These days, Moore is probably best known for being the executive producer of the Battlestar Galactica reboot and the showrunner of Outlander, among other achievements.

After Ron left the Trek franchise, he also gave a very interesting five-part interview on his time working on those series. This interview is notable because he talks often of finding the "truth" in writing, and how a writer has to respect his audience. Interestingly, a lot of the criticisms he lobs at Star Trek: Voyager presage creative decisions he would later make in the Battlestar Galactica reboot.

I was in college at the time of this interview and roughly a year later, I found myself with the opportunity to create a TV show for a student-run cable network that we were attempting to get off the ground. I immediately latched on the idea of doing a teen-drama type series set on a college campus, and soon went mad with delusions of writing episodes with the same character complexity and compelling stories as on my favorite shows Homicide and Buffy, among others.

It's a bit ironic looking back on my ambitions now. The first season was a bit looser and less grounded. In the second season I exercised more control over the storylines and wanted to do more dramatic, serious storytelling. Homicide episodes like "Crosetti," dealing with the loss of one of the squad to suicide, and "Have a Conscience," where Detective Kellerman considers taking his own life were huge influences. Years later it took me a little too long to realize that 13 Reasons Why was probably the closest a TV show ever came to being the kind of series that I was shooting for tonally and in terms of some of the leads.

This endeavor was a total grass roots effort. There was a dedicated group of students trying to make this work, but the school administration wasn't exactly behind us and none of the media-related departments wanted to get saddled with us either. That meant that all of our work ended up being done on our own time and we were responsible for finding our own equipment - including cameras and editing facilities, and all of this had to be done on our own time. This was no mean feat, as DV was just on the verge of breaking through AND Final Cut Pro was still a relatively new and expensive program that wasn't yet owned by every wannabe filmmaker. Had we been working on this three years later, it would have been twice as easy. At the time, we were shooting on VHS and sneaking into editing labs during late nights and weekends. In one semester, we shot and edited about ten half-hour episodes of our little college drama. Considering the restrictions on our time and the limitations we had, that was pretty impressive.

I say all of this mainly so you can appreciate how unusual this was at the time. This preceded YouTube by at least three years, so we were nowhere near the time where every aspiring filmmaker essentially had his own laptop studio, with easy distribution via video sites like, YouTube or Funny Or Die. Three years later, it probably would have been a lot easier to produce the show, but also would have been much less impressive to anyone "in the biz." However, I'd have made that trade in an instant. I'd have killed for greater access to Final Cut and it would be nice to watch the episodes and not cringe at the shitty VHS quality. (Yes, I said VHS. Feel free to shudder.)

As long as I'm on this tangent, I might as well say that while some of my writing in that show was of questionable quality, the experience was invaluable. I learned a lot about staging scenes, shooting coverage efficiently and writing tighter dialogue. When you're forced to hear poor dialogue many, many takes in a row and realize that it's not poor acting, but your overwritten verbiage that's causing the problem, you're motivated to overcome your weaknesses.

So feeling proud of myself, I finally got up the nerve to write Ron Moore a letter telling him all about what I was doing in college and how I had learned more about character writing and TV production from him than I had from any professor. (This wasn't smoke - many times that season I found myself drawing inspiration from his writings and interviews.)

Eight weeks later I had nearly forgotten all about this letter - until I returned home one summer afternoon to find a message from Ron's assistant on Roswell, where he worked at the time. She said that Ron had been very touched by my letter and asked me to call her back so that he might thank me himself.

Considering I hadn't included my phone number in the letter, I was rather impressed that this message had found its way to me. I assumed that this assistant had spent the morning tracking me down. Thanks to a journal I kept at the time, I have a pretty detailed account of how this went. In all its embarrassing glory.

So after I pick my jaw up from the floor, I dial the number and get transferred to Ron. He actually sounded excited to be talking to me! "I wanted to thank you for the very nice letter you sent," he said. I reply with something like "well, I have been a big admirer of your work for a long time."

Then he says to me, "So tell me about this show you're doing. I want to hear all about it." (My mind at this point is screaming "My idol just asked me to tell him about *my show!* This has got to be a dream!")

So I give him a Cliff Notes version of what we're doing, how many eps, and all that wonderful stuff. He sounds genuinely impressed. "Wow, I've never heard of anyone doing anything like that!" he finally says.

Then he says, "Hey, I'd love to see an episode sometime if it wouldn't be too much trouble for you to send a tape." Excitedly, I assure him that there'll be a package arriving at his office soon. (I sent it priority mail on Saturday. I sent him a copy of episodes 5 through 9, with the tape cued to ep 9. In an enclosed letter, I told him that ep 5 is the place to start if he is more interested in following the story, but ep 9 is the one he should look at to get an idea of the level of acting and production values we achieved in the end, and what we hope to maintain next season.)

All told, we chat for about 15-20 minutes. As the phone call concludes, he tells me "Stay in touch."

For an embarrassing insight into my naivete, take a look at this excerpt from an email I sent to my fellow writers about this phone call:

How cool is this? A Hollywood producer has a copy of our show! Now, the likelihood is that he'll probably watch it and maybe be entertained. But imagine if he's impressed...either by the acting or the writing or the directing. What if he shows it to other Hollywood types and they like something in it? Sure, it's unlikely, but this could be how we get our foot in the door in LA. Think about that for a few minutes.

I should also mention that Ron's very friendly assistant had also sent me an email that same day, and I spoke to her again after talking to Ron so that I could get a more efficient mailing address, sending the tape directly to their production offices on the lot as opposed to the general network address. And this, dear readers is where in retrospect, I totally dropped the ball.

A few weeks go by. No word from Ron. But I figure he's a busy guy and he probably hasn't had time to watch the tape yet. After about three months, I'm starting to wonder if he saw it and he didn't like it. Or maybe I dropped the ball by not following up with him sooner. What if he's completely forgotten me? I didn't want to be the kind of pest who bugged him a week after sending it, but he did say to "stay in touch." Eventually, I start trying to figure out a non-desperate-sounding pretense for contacting him again.

Fortune smiles upon me when a throwaway mention in an early episode that season seems like it could have been a shout-out to my show. I decide to send him another letter. Within a week, I have my answer, an email from his assistant:

"I just wanted to write and let you know that we received your letter, and the tape you sent earlier of your campus television show. Ron has been unable to view the tape, at this point... (due to the CRAZY hectic producing schedule I keep him on-- balancing his time between writing, story-developing, and post-production.) As you know with making a television show, it can be quite busy!

Ron extends his best wishes to you in your television-writing ventures.
Take care."

So... the brush-off. But hey, I still think that was pretty cool of Ron to track me down in the first place and chat with me on the phone. I might not have gotten everything I hoped out of it, but it gave me a pretty cool story and left me secure in the belief that Ron Moore was a pretty cool guy. Anyway, after that last email, I took the hint and decided to leave with some of my dignity intact.

Now class, can anyone tell me what I did wrong, and how I overlooked another opportunity that was right under my nose?

That's right - the assistant. I totally overlooked the opportunity to cultivate some kind of relationship there. Here's a secret about the industry - while everyone naturally resents being used, most people are only too happy to lend other up-and-comers the benefit of their experience. To put it another way - there are few people who don't enjoy talking about themselves. Use that to your advantage. If you ask the right questions, you might learn something.

So what I should have done is sent that tape, then emailed the assistant to not only thank her for making that contact possible, but also to ask her for advice. I could have said that I was considering moving out to LA in a little over a year, just after graduation, and asked if she had any advice about making that move. I could have asked about what areas are good areas to live in, how much an apartment costs, how hard it is to find a job, how she got hooked up with her job, when's the best time to move to LA, and so on.

There are probably about a hundred different things I could have asked this assistant that not only would have made her feel like an expert, but would have benefited me in the long run. As a bonus, it would have maintained that relationship. Who knows? Maybe when I moved out to LA, I could have used that to meet with her for lunch, perhaps finding a way to approach Ron eventually. Or she might have been able to submit my resume for any open PA positions on the show.

The point is, I overlooked an opportunity to ingrain myself with someone who might have been lower in the ranks than I wanted, but who still could have taught me a lot. Today's writer's assistants are tomorrow's writers - and had I thought of it like that, I'd have realized it might not be a bad idea to make friends with someone who was climbing the same ranks I wanted to.

I eventually reached out to her several months after I moved to L.A. and had a job. By that point, she'd left the business and had moved elsewhere.

As for Ron, it took many, many years but we finally crossed paths at San Diego Comic-Con. Ron was a guest on a writing panel and as the program concluded I managed to maneuver myself into walking past him as he got off-stage. I reintroduced myself, explaining about the letter I wrote all those years ago. "Oh yeah! I think I remember that!" he said. This might be true, or he was just being polite.

Either way he indulged me in a brief chat and I posed for a picture with him. This coincided with a brief high in my career where it seemed like I might have a project that could go, so at the time, I took it as an omen. It would have been a nice "full circle" kind of act if that encounter with Ron preceded a career boost. Even without that, it was nice to get that closure.

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