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,

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Thoughts on BARRY's upcoming season finale and morality in story presentation

Some thoughts on next week's BARRY finale. Sunday's penultimate episode had Barry racing to stop his former partner Fuchs from murdering Barry's acting coach Gene. Complicating matters is that last season, Barry had to kill Gene's girlfriend Moss, a police detective, when she figured out Barry was a hitman.

Barry killed her and hid the body and her car in the woods - which is where Fuchs has led Gene, seemingly ready to expose Barry's secret to Gene before killing him and framing him for Moss's murder.

An obvious issue is that since Fuchs has presented himself as a friend of Barry's, even if Barry gets there in time, Gene will wonder what Barry's doing with someone that dangerous, how this person knew where to find Moss, and how Barry even knew to be there. It's a chain of questions that leads to the exposure of Barry's secret, making it possible that when Barry gets there, he might have to kill Gene.

Here's my speculation: We’ve already seen Barry murder two “good” people he didn’t want to. This is why I think we won’t see any scenario in which he has to kill Gene next week. That doesn’t mean Fuchs WON’T, but I also doubt that.

I think the most likely scenario is that Barry kills Fuchs, saves Gene and Gene gives the performance of his life convincing Barry he finds none of this suspicious. And the drive of the next season is Gene putting all the pieces together.

There’s too much meat left on Gene’s story for me to think he ends up dead next week. Killing Gene neither opens any doors, nor tells us something we don’t know. Keeping him alive offers more dramatic possibility.

I tweeted these thoughts and it prompted someone to ask, "How is it I’m still rooting for BARRY knowing he killed Gene’s GF? Was it the long delayed actually showing of the killing?"

It’s because the presentation of the story is all from his POV, which makes us complicit in his perspective. We understand the reasoning and the emotion of his choice. That identification makes us susceptible to Barry’s conviction he “had” to do it.

Moss is coded as the antagonist and so it subverts our default to see her as the hero, even though, objectively she would be. The show makes Barry charming enough that he wins us over. He kills people, but most of them are bad. Why should we care?

That’s how we’re seduced to his side. We see it all through his eyes. And at S1’s end, when our choice is “kill or go to jail,” we’re already on that dark side with Barry.

Because we had no other choice.

Didn’t we?

A response to that was: "And it’s not the same as rooting for a genuinely horrible person like in Breaking Bad. Barry’s not evil, he’s broken."

Here’s my question: “isn’t it?” Do the distinctions in motivation matter?

Supporting Barry seems different from supporting Walter White because his overall arc is coded as redemptive. He WANTS to be better, and we’re giving him points for effort. Walt’s is pretty clearly a decent fueled by lust for power. That trips our “bad guy” alarm more easily.

What Bill Hader and Alec Berg have done with BARRY is quite remarkable. There's no reason we should empathize at all with this hardened killer, but they make Barry so damn relatable that the audience is often seduced by the lure of seeing themselves in Barry's shoes. That's the power of writing and performing.