Wednesday, October 21, 2020

On how doing a live read of CRISIS ON INFINITE TEEN DRAMAS with Greg Berlanti brings twenty years of my life full circle

Last week I finally ripped off the Bitter Script Reader mask with the announcement of a live read for my script CRISIS ON INFINITE TEEN DRAMAS. The project unites cast members from about a dozen different teen shows - including EVERWOOD's Gregory Smith and Emily VanCamp in their original roles - and is produced by Ben Blacker and Greg Berlanti.

Twenty years ago this November, I was sitting in my dorm room at Denison University, writing the first episode of a TV show I was producing for the college's student-run cable network. The university was providing no support to the network, beyond letting us use the close-circuit channel for broadcasting. The production of the programs was completely the responsibility of the students making them. The university was providing neither funds nor resources. If I was going to make this show, it'd have to be on my own time, with whatever cameras and editing equipment I could scrounge up.

But I was very interested in getting to be a showrunner. I'd spent years reading the answers that STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE writer Ron Moore gave to fans who chatted with him on the AOL boards. A lot of what he talked about related to crafting story and how to make producible TV. It was sort of like showrunner school for someone who knew nothing about how writing for TV worked. Where I had huge gaps, they'd been partly filled in by a wealth of interviews from Joss Whedon, who often spoke at length about crafting genre TV with meaning and developing story and characters over long distances.

I decided to make producing the show easy on myself and set it on a college campus, revolving around the lives of students in a slightly heightened version of our school. That squarely put this in same genre of TV as much of what The WB was producing. More specifically - I was clearly showing the influence of DAWSON'S CREEK, which had just started its 4th season and had had a drastic upswing in quality about a third of the way through the previous season. There's no doubt that the character dynamics and conflicts had imprinted on me and were finding their way into the script I was working on.

The man who took over DAWSON'S CREEK and who was responsible for that creative resurgence? Greg Berlanti.

You probably begin to see how having Greg involved with the live read of a script of mine that's a valentine to the entire teen drama genre really felt like an instance of things coming full circle. There might be a couple of full circles there, to be honest. My good friend Matt Bolish - who I got to know at Denison when creating the show - called CRISIS "The script you've been meant to write for as long as I've known you."

To add to the layers of surrealism, I've been working for Greg for the better part of this year as the writers' assistant on the forth-coming SUPERMAN & LOIS.

This all has made me very reflective over the last several weeks, and so I hope you'll indulge me as I share some memories.

Casting the show was a humbling experience. We'd announced an open call across two days. On Day 1 only four people showed up. Fortunately, one of the students heading up DTV had some ties to the theater department and he made sure that Day 2 had many more actors. Even then, there was a lesson to be learned - you can't cast people who don't show up. Though some actors walked in and were more or less perfect for a part, there were a number of critical roles where no one fit the characters in my brain. Tailoring those characters to their performers would be a season-long effort. 

For instance, I'd written our villain as a pompous, verbose young Lex Luthor type. The guy we cast didn't have any obvious menace, but we found a way to make that work. The bigger issue was that he just wasn't used to memorizing paragraphs of dialogue, as we discovered in shooting the first episode. So immediately he was rewritten to be "more terse" (the actor's words) in later eps.

On the other hand, I learned that one effective technique was to scare the hell out of the actors about needing to know their lines for one big scene. The first episode had two such scenes. One was an EXTREMELY rare scene where we had eight of the ten regulars assembled at the dining hall for a scene that established everyone's dynamic with each other. Because of the difficulty in finding an open window in everyone's schedules, that didn't get shot until the end of the second week of production. That meant I had two weeks to warn everyone that they had to be ON because everyone was there and we'd have a lot of coverage to get. As a benefit, by then, most of the cast had settled into their roles.

We had three cameras rolling for this and my memory is that everyone nailed every line on the first take. It was like watching a play, even though everyone knew this scene would have a lot of cuts, and thus opportunities to pick up missed or blown lines. With three cameras going, my memory is that we only had to do it three or four times in full.

Threatening your cast works.

Right after that, we shot one of the most self indulgent scenes I ever wrote, where five of the characters are playing risk, and my avatar Owen Beckett sizes up everyone's strategies, using them as a way of psychologically deconstructing his opponents. It was over two pages where the actor, the aforementioned Matt Bolish, was doing most of the talking. Again, threatening physical harm got the job done because Matt nailed it perfectly. (There's a blooper reel where, during shooting of another scene where Matt keeps dropping his lines, he points at me and says, "you know who I blame for this? I blame you, because I've been up all week going "...and that's why he doesn't make alliances," quoting the cursed scene.)

This week I'm gonna take a few looks back at this project. It was the thing that really made me feel like I should pursue TV writing, and I definitely learned some lessons on it that made me not only a better writer, but probably better prepared to be a showrunner (someday.)

Part II


  1. I sent an email to your Zuul account, but thought it would be appropriate here to say something that long-time followers of your blog and Bitter-on-Twitter have felt following your news in recent days.

    This is thrill for ALL of us!

    All of the tips you've given, questions answered, and spotlights on what works and doesn't work in scripts/film - it's all been appreciated!

    I'm sure there are many like me that have been rooting for the day when your career would reach a moment that forced the mask off.

    Seeing this happen is hugely rewarding and I, and many like me, will be cheering for you in a whole new way now.

    Thank you for all the work you've put into being Bitter - and CONGRATS!


    1. Thanks Ed! I've been meaning to reply to your email and I promise I'll do that later this week!

      I'm genuinely touched to be getting replies like this. It means a lot to me, truly.