Tuesday, October 27, 2009
After not getting into the CFC, I had to re-evaluate my year, as I'd essentially pinned all my hopes and plans on it. I immediately decided that I had to quit my day job, as it wasn't in film or TV and was hurting my soul. Most of all, it wasn't giving me time or energy to write, so I was going nowhere by working there.
So I quit with no immediate prospects, and started looking. Some months beforehand I had made cold calls to the productions listed on the OMDC In Production list, and had spoken to a few people and sent out some resumes, but nothing had come of it. There was one person that I'd ended up chatting with more than the others, as they were also an RTA grad, and I sent him an email to say I was looking again. Well my timing was perfect, because he soon replied to say that he was working on a TV movie and they needed assistants. I went for an interview and was hired! So I'm currently the Assistant to the Executive Producer of an American TV movie. This job would never have appeared to me without having made an effort to network, or by following up later with my new contacts.
My boss is an LA producer, who does a lot of stuff for HBO and Showtime (though this specific project is a Sony/Lifetime production). I've been doing the basic admin stuff assistants are expected to do, but she's really taken an effort to make this a learning experience for me. She knows that I want to write and produce, and I've been watching all the script revisions (and how the writing affects and is affected by the production team), the casting process, the entire pre-production process, and the politics between all levels of production. She now has me doing development for her as well (for projects she wants to do after this), and I'm learning how to write coverage. Maybe I can convince her to carry me back to LA in her suitcase...
I had been the assistant to an Executive Producer once before (at a reality TV company) and from that experience I was convinced that I just simply wasn't cut out to be an assistant, all because that particular EP was basically just a cruel and unhappy person. I am glad I took this new position, because I LOVE this job. And while that's partly because I actually want to work in scripted TV, it's mostly because my new boss is awesome, and is kind and a pleasure to work with. And because I'm enjoying myself, doing a good job. Who knew that liking your job was the key to being successful at it?
At the same time, I can see that my boss is unusual in this industry, and even in my office. There is another EP, a Producer and a Director in the office, each with assistants, and mine is definitely the nicest. The other assistants all complain about how unreasonable or sadistic their bosses are. What I can see is that, if you are a boss and have an assistant, you'll get more out of being nice to them, than if you are cruel. Either way, all they want to do is impress you, and they will do whatever you want, as fast as they can. But, if you're mean to them, they'll do this out of fear and hold resentment towards you, and dread coming into work. If you're nice and show appreciation, they will work harder and longer without complaining, and they will feel a strong sense of loyalty to you. I am going to try my damnedest to remember what kind of boss I want to be, when I get there.
As a point of interest, I was partially hired because of my technical skills, with computers, programs, technology in general, ect, and I've kind of become the production's resident tech/IT guy. It never occurred to me how important that might be on a production, but I was chosen over another person because of it. I'll be sure to emphasize it more on my resume from now on. For those of you not particularly technically inclined, try to think of what skills you have that can set you aside from all the other people with exactly the same education and years of experience as you.
So, the CFC would have been a great experience, but if I'd gotten in this year I would never have been able to take this gig, and this experience and contacts I've been generating are invaluable. Hooray for failure!
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Last week I got a follow-up call from the CFC. They told me that they liked my writing, but that applicants in general were extremely strong this year. They gave me some very insightful notes on my pilot and spec, and implored me to apply again next year. They knew about my writing group (5 of us applied to the CFC, 3 got to the interview stage, 0 got into the program), and they said that having a writing group is a great thing, but that I'm at the point in my skill level where I could use the eye of a professional story editor, someone who does TV writing for a living. Well, OK, I said, that's a great idea but where would I find a person like that? "Oh, we might be able to help you find someone." That blew my mind - that a program I didn't even get into would go to all that trouble! I'm not sure what exactly it entails, but it's certainly above and beyond what is expected of the CFC, and it really gave me a confidence boost.
I'd like to note, on the spec vs. pilot debate, that they had not read my pilot. In fact, they couldn't have cared less about it, and it was only on my surprise about that fact that they even offered to read it. They said the reason they don't care about pilots with new writers is that our first job is going to be writing on someone else's show, so it's important that we have 2 specs of other shows that are brilliant.
So all in all, this has been a sobering, humbling past month for me. I've realized that I still have some ways to go before I'm at the level that I thought I already was at. But it's also given me hope because at every point, I have been encouraged and nurtured, even by the people who have turned me down, and this has to mean something. So I carry on.
Friday, July 17, 2009
There were 5 people, including myself, that applied to the CFC from my writing group. Two were given rejection notices on Monday and since then the rest of us have gotten requests for an interview. Of course I was the last person to find out. It sucks for the people that didn't get in because they are both great writers, and for one of them this is the second attempt at applying. Ironically last year they got an interview and they didn't this year even though they felt like their material was stronger. I'm not sure what to make of that, though I was told that there were many more people that applied this year than previous. Perhaps that's because of Denis McGrath, Alex Epstein and other Canadian scribes extolling the virtues of the CFC over the blogosphere?
Past the first gate and closing in on the second!
Friday, May 15, 2009
Cause that's how I roll - on the edge.
That was a monster of an application package, surely bigger than anything else I've ever submitted for anything.
- 1 spec script - Mad Men
- 1 original one-hour drama pilot
- my CV
- a one-page Letter of Intent
- a synopsis of my Mad Men spec, as well as a synopsis of the next spec I want to write
- a synopsis of my pilot as well as synopses of two more pilots I want to write
- a top 10 list of my all-time favourite shows
Then while I was printing the triplicate copies of my scripts (you had to hand in 3 identical packages) out at 4pm, I found that somehow the printer wasn't set to "collate". I must admit, though I consider myself as the keeper of an above-average vocabulary, I didn't actually know the definition of that word. I certainly know it now.
col·late (k-lt, klt, klt)tr.v. col·lat·ed, col·lat·ing, col·lates
I printed out 3 copies of 2 60-page scripts, but somehow I had only two piles. Each pile was ordered like so: Page 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3 ... and so on, for 360 pages. It was now 4:10, and I knew it would take me at least 15 minutes to drive to the CFC. So I sorted them all out and hopefully I didn't mix the pages up; I didn't have time to go through each script page by page to make sure.
Ordered, bound and clipped, I set out for the CFC. Traffic is clear, until Lawrence and Bayview. At 4:45 I'm stuck in traffic, a 5 minute walk away from the CFC. At 4:50 I'm freaking the fuck out. At 4:55 I'm considering just driving off the bridge and making it all go away. Then traffic starts to move, I almost get in several accidents, and when I finally find the CFC laneway, I park the car and run/jog to the door, getting inside at 4:59pm.
And now I wait.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
One week. One pilot. I think that's acceptable in TV land. 2 days until the CFC application is due, and everything is coming along nicely.
I was very happy with my first draft. I'll venture to say it's the best first draft I think I've ever written. And it's also the longest completely original script I've ever written, as it's my first pilot. So with confidence, in the wee hours of last night I sent out the first draft of my original one-hour dramedy pilot, "Merely Mortal", to my writing group. I know there will inevitably be problems to fix because you can never write a perfect first draft, but there weren't any problems I could see. And I think that's an important distinction to make because you should only ever send out a draft for notes if you can't see anything wrong with it. Too many times people send out drafts and when they get notes they say "oh yeah I knew about that", or they preface their script with the warning that they know there's a problem with this, that or whatever. Well if you knew about it why didn't you fix it? I think it's lazy writing to not try and fix everything you can on your own.
I also don't think a first draft should be the very first draft. It's the best you can make it in your first shot. Your very very first draft will likely be your word-vomit. Personally, I like to just write my first draft as fast as I can and then go back and tweak a bit. Three quarters of the way through my story I realized I was missing an entire plot. So I added that in, finished the script, then went back over it and looked for problems. I found some, fixed them and then sent it out.
Having immersed yourself in the research and characters you will have difficulty being objective about your script after a certain point. You need two things to overcome this: other people and time. Other people will point out things that don't make sense or aren't expained well enough. Once you send out your draft, even if you get notes back immediately, wait at least a day before going back and writing the next draft. You'll see your script with fresher eyes and subconsciously your mind is going over and over your plots, and working it out and identifying problems. So when you come back you will probably find you can point out issues you didn't realize existed.
There have already been notes trickling in (thank you guys!) and tonight I will re-attack the script and try and fix those problems. So far it seems it's all minor stuff, no huge structural changes. And that's not surprising because I felt when I sent it out that it was working well structurally.
I think the main point I'm trying to make is to do your own work, and let others help you in the ways you can't already help yourself.
Monday, May 4, 2009
I just wanted to let the internets know that my sketch comedy team just launched our brand spankin' new website today! And though there's only one sketch up there at the moment, it is mine, all mine.
Check it out: http://thesketchers.com/
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Which show do I spec?
Before deciding to spec a show, make sure it has already found its feet. For example, if you watch early episodes of the X-files it's obvious that they're still feeling out the show, and are playing around with structural and story elements. You want a show that is already fairly consistent from episode to episode, and that sometimes only happens halfway through the 1st season. Shows in their first season are generally not a good idea, unless that show is already a big hit right out of the gate (example: The Mentalist). If that's the case and it's almost guaranteed that it will be renewed, then if you spec that show you'll be in the front percentile for that show and therefore the readers won't be sick of reading that show yet. You have to realize that most of the people reading specs read piles of the same show, and in those cases the only specs that will stand out to them had better be frakin' awesome. You don't want to write a spec after everyone else has already specced that show, because it makes it that much harder for you. However, it's equally important that the person reading your spec has seen the show in the first place, because if they haven't it won't get any traction; therefore the show has to be popular enough to assume that most agents, producers, ect will have seen it. For most shows, a good time to spec it is near the beginning of the second season.
Do not spec your favourite show. You won't be critical, and your internal fanboy will take over, and the script will read like fan fiction. You need to be able to take apart the show, and identify the elements, strengths, and weaknesses. You need to write a dispassionate but good spec. Also, if it's your favourite show when you start writing the spec you will probably ruin your affection for it, just like writing an English report in high school ruined your favourite book.You also can't hate the show, because that will come through if you have contempt for the show and/or think you're writing "down". Ideally you should find a show you have an affinity for but aren't obsessed with.
Be anal about checking ratings. No one wants to read a cancelled show, even if it was just cancelled one minute ago. Sorry.
Good shows to spec
- Cold Case
- Criminal Minds
- The Closer
- Saving Grace
- Law & Order (any one, though you better have something good)
- House - problem is that it's been done to death, so it had better be good. And if your sister in law isn't a doctor, don't bother. The medical stuff has to be spot on.
- Mad Men
- Hannah Montana - if you want to do kids stuff, great. But remember that the industry, especially Hollywood, loves to pigeonhole. Writing one of these would probably do that to you.
- True Blood
- Big Bang Theory
- Without A
- Supernatural Trace
- Big Love
- American Dad
- Family Guy
- Ugly Betty
- Big Bang Theory
- Chuck (really good)
- Samantha Who
- How I met your Mother
30 Rock might not be a good show to spec, because it seems to be 4 different shows at different points, depending on Tina Fey's mood. Therefore it's kinda hard to nail.
Though this should not be true, it's probably not wise to spec a Canadian show. It's a wierd situation in the Canadian TV scene because there's a lot of pettiness. Since it's such a small industry, producer for Show A may not like the producer from Show B, and then your brilliant spec of Show B is useless. On top of that, the producers and writers in Canada often don't watch each other's shows; Canadians can be self-hating about our own content, and this includes the people making the content. This all boils down to the unfortunate truth that with all the baggage associated with Canadian TV you simply have a better chance if you spec an American show. Saying that, the two Canadian shows that are likely best to spec are Flashpoint and Being Erica (though you should only reference this show after episode seven).
Deconstructing a TV show
You want to watch and deconstruct 2-4 episodes of the show. One or two may not tell you what the patterns are but the more you see the more you can see the structure underlying all the episodes. Get scripts but if you can, ignore the pilot script, as it's likely not indicative of the show's tone and structure.
- Go through each of these episodes and write a skeleton - how many scenes, how many plots (A-, B-, C-), when do the plots kick in, what does the show do off the top?
- How many scenes are there per act? Create a chart where you get the exact timings of the scenes.
- Break down the main and secondary characters, who are they, what are their characteristics, what are their stories?
- Ask: are the A-, B-, C- plots tied together thematically? Where exactly does the climax of each plot come?
- Look at the act outs, what type of beat do they go to commercial on?
- Ask: Do the characters change at all? If so, to what degree?
- If it’s a humorous show, what kind of humour is it? (i.e. cruel, uncomfortable, slapstick, witty). Also ask, do they use callbacks? Buttons? Rule of Three? Who gets the jokes, and how many times? For a comedy, do not impose your specific type of humour on the show, rather, try and mimic the style of humour the show already uses.
- Break down how many locations there are. Ask: how many scenes are on the “home sets”? Do not exceed these numbers in your spec.
- Exercise: Is there another angle not listed above that you can use to break down the show with?
- With all this information, reverse engineer a beat-sheet for each episode.
A good exercise is to deconstruct Shakespeare's Macbeth by following the above guidelines, as Macbeth has a fantastic 5 act structure, and you'll learn a lot.
Preparing to Break Story
Have the basic rules down for the show. Capture the true voices of the characters; show the twists and turns in the same place and way as the show; write with the same themes in your storylines. However, you are not writing just any episode of the show. You are not reaching for mediocrity. Your spec has to have that "X-factor", it has to be an above average episode. Denis told us a story about a recent girl being hired onto a Canadian show, and the showrunner told Denis that her spec was the best spec that he had ever read. That's what we're up against.
Don't annoy the reader or make their job difficult. For a cable show like Dexter, or an otherwise highly serial show, a lot of people make the mistake of trying to place it "between episodes 3 and 4 of the 2nd season" (Trevor's note: I did that with my first spec, a Heroes. Woops!). Think about how annoying that would be for the person reading it, to try and figure out where it is in the timeline. There are two ways to spec these kinds of show 1) do a completely stand-alone episode or 2) write the first episode of an imaginary season. You can even have some elements that don't get resolved, like in any season opener. That should free you up creatively as well.
Do not fuck the world. Remember you are not there to fix the show, and you are not writing fan fiction.
Don't make the episode about the guest character. Guests are supposed to reveal aspects of the main characters. However, you can focus your spec on a little-used regular character. If you think of a story that would go perfect with Angel from Dexter, for example, then that could impress.
You need to know why people love a particular show, and you need to deliver that. People watch serial shows because they fall in love with the characters. People like to watch David Caruso take off his sunglasses. Don't deny them that.
The first 20 pages are crucial. But, the first 10 are even more important. The beginning needs to be exciting, vibrant, and page-turning, because every ten pages are a negotiation; you're constantly negotiating whether or not they are going to read the next 10 pages.
There are 3 basic skills to be a TV writer:
- being a good writer
- being good in a room - have the ability to give and take ideas
- being good at pitching
A true introvert will have immense trouble being a TV writer, as it is a highly social job. At a certain point in your career it will be assumed that you are a good writer, and at that moment, the other two skills become much more important. If you think you are too introverted, a good way to counter that is by taking acting classes (it doesn't matter if you don't want to be an actor, but it will help you become used to standing in front of people and talking). Otherwise, maybe you should think about film.
I hope that was as useful to you as it was to me! Back to writing!
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
I just found this incredibly useful wiki site, TV Tropes, which identifies tropes and idioms in television writing. Which is great, because that's freaking useful, but it also sucks, because I've suddenly realized how derivative my pilot is (so far). I've been thinking of weaving in an Adam and Eve plot into my post-apocalyptic drama. Great.
That being said, the site explains on the home page that it's not about pointing out cliche's and making fun of them (though it does periodically do this), but it's looking to identify and celebrate TV devices and conventions. Look up any of your favourite shows and you'll see that they all borrow from these storytelling tricks.
So, it doesn't matter that the world of my pilot has already been created in previous shows or films, it just matters that I can infuse my characters and situations with as much life and originality as possible. Every thing's been done, so all you need to do is re-package it in a fresh way. That's actually quite freeing; I've been trying to come up with a truly original concept for a pilot for the last month, and each time I come up with one I realize it's been done. Now I can finally stop looking, pick a damn scenario and make it my own.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
38 days until the CFC application is due. And I still don't have a pilot.
I've been flip-flopping like Andy Samberg about what kind of pilot to write. I came up with an idea about a week ago for a post-apocalyptic TV show, and I think I'm liking that. But then I started thinking about this other idea, a noir-influenced procedural. And now I'm back to wanting to do the post-apocalyptic one.
My idea is like Jericho, but much, much darker. Essentially the show I would have liked Jericho to be. The tone is probably closer to BSG than anything else. I won't give more details because I'm still hammering them out but I was influenced by Cormac McCarthy's The Road, as well as the video game Fallout 3, so if you've come across either of those you know what I'm talking about. Cannibals!
But I was concerned that this would be too dark. One of my writing group members pointed out that people don't want dark right now; they want light, fluffy stuff to contrast with the bleak fiery wasteland that is our day to day existence. However, while that may be true, our economy won't always be in the shits; people will want their bleak shows again. And I'm writing this primarily to get into the CFC, where I will write more pilots anyway, and all they want to know right now is that I can create and write an interesting show. And I think it's always best to write what you most feel like writing, because you never know what will be hot in two months, and if you like what you're writing that comes out. And if I force myself to write light and fluffy drama I might just throw myself into the water.
On the completely opposite side of the writing spectrum, I've recently joined a Sketch comedy troupe, The Sketchers, as a writer and performer, along with a large group of about twenty other people. We've been going for a month now, have already filmed five sketches, and are working on the second five, all of which will be available May 1 on www.thesketchers.com. The plan after that is to release 5 or more sketches per month and build up an online presence. I've been told the others are interested in doing an online comedy series, so I'll likely start developing one of those after I've dealt with the CFC thing.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
A few weeks ago I'd sent it out to my writing group 2/3 complete, and from that I took their notes, re-shuffled my index cards and completed the script. It's sitting exactly at 60 pages, like a good little drama. And I thought it would be short. I'm presenting to my group again on Saturday, so I just sent out the newest, complete script to everyone.
I did end up going back to the 5-act system, though. I apologize for the flip-flopping, but that's part of the process, OK? The three-acts didn't feel, I dunno, TV enough. Maybe I should post my spec online, and link to it here on my blog. I don't know if there's a point in having it registered with the WGC though, since I can never sell it anyway. And why would someone steal a TV spec?
This means I am 50% to my goal of the two scripts needed to apply to the Canadian Film Centre for the Prime-Time Writer's Program starting next September. It requires one TV spec and one original script (I'm going with spec pilot), so the latter is what I'm now going to concentrate on. So all I need now is a brilliant, original, commercial idea with a great hook and complex, compelling characters! And who doesn't have those?
In comedy news, this week I also joined a sketch comedy group, the Sketchers, who are in the process of creating an online SNL-like show to be posted once a month on sites like Funnyordie.com, youtube, ect, and possibly on our own website. Even though I want to write hour-long drama, I still have a comedy bug I need to explore. And I decided I also have to try my hand doing stand-up, possibly at Yuk Yuk's amateur night. Because I'm masochistic. Maybe I can convince my sister to come. She laughs at everything I say.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
The doc/corporate video company that I've been recently writing scripts for was hired by a giant metal processing company based in Toronto, but with satellites all over Canada and the US, to make videos for several arms of the company for their annual meeting. Each video is supposed to show what each arm has accomplished in the past year, and this particular division was the Mid West, based out of Detroit. They told us all the major points they wanted included in the video, so I took that and wrote a comedic 5 minute script around it, that has the Detroit office start a Powerpoint presentation in their boardroom that slowly morphs into an episode of Star Trek (with a little Star Wars for good measure). Their presentation screen turns into the bridge monitor from the Enterprise, their cellphones are communicators, and they have to expand outward from the post-apocalyptic wastes of Detroit (their light speed travel displayed by the "star field" screen saver on most Windows computers of course).
And my producer, Bob, likes the script so much that he says I should go and direct it in Detroit! Fantastic!
Then we get to the border. Apparently we don't have the right working papers to get into the US. This confounded Bob as he's been doing videos in the US for twenty or so years and has never had a problem at the border before. We were hiring an American crew, and just coming in to oversee the production. We thought that since we weren't actually getting physically paid in the US to do the job that it was OK for us to go in and obviously that was wrong. So they kept us for 3 hours at the border while they "processed" us, taking our photos and our fingerprints (!), so now we are officially in the Homeland Security system. They claimed that this won't affect us getting back into the US, should we have a good reason or proper papers, but I get the feeling that I'm always going to have a hassle from now on. Sigh.
So we retreated to a hotel near the border in Sarnia, and tried but failed to reach anyone in Detroit, because by now it was midnight. The crew and the office staff were going to show up at 7:30am, so what would we do? We decided to go to sleep, of course.
At 6:30am we got a call back from our DP, Ed, and we asked him if we could try directing by phone from Sarnia, and surprisingly he was all for it. I fortunately had done a lot of prep, having done thorough storyboards and a shot list. I faxed everything to him and then he would call me before setting up a shot and I would tell him how I wanted it done, how it should be acted, ect. Then he'd do it and call me with the next one. And it went fast; he finished early. Of course, I have yet to see a single frame, so I have no idea what it actually looks like but the actual shooting day went extremely well, and it could have been a complete disaster.
I have to say, after the border ridiculousness, it was a very comfortable experience directing from my hotel room. I think I may be the only Director I know of that has not been present for the actual production. Well, physically anyway. Is this a new fad? Maybe Roman Polanski can follow my lead and start Tele-Directing in the US?
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Then it became clear to me that Mad Men is not written with 5 acts, but 3. Which should not have surprised me since the writers don't conform to any other TV drama rules, why would they care about the normal 5 act structure? So I reworked the beats with 3 acts, each act being about 14 minutes long, and that felt more natural so I think I'm on the right track.
I set out to actually put pen to paper yesterday. Since my first draft is due to my group by Monday, I have essentially 7 full days to write it. Yesterday I wrote 5 pages. An average Mad Men script is about 60 pages. So if I write 7-8 pages per day, I'll be fine. Of course, I'm talking about writing an episode of the most subtle and complex show on TV in one week flat, so obviously my first draft will be perfect.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Mad Men does use 5 acts, but they don't work like true acts. I was confused when I got the scripts (unfortunately only from the 1st season); in the scripts there are no act breaks yet it's written for networks that have commercial breaks. I wrote my beat sheet with the act breaks but I'll just take them out when I put it to script. However, even though there are acts, they aren't typical. There are no cliffhangers, and the tension is compounded very subtly (totally different from Heroes, which has a very physical, obvious ratcheting up of stakes). Not to say there isn't drama - there's lots, but the drama here is often internal, in what people aren't saying or doing. Sounds boring when you say it like that, but it really isn't. Mad Men is written more like a film than a TV show; though it's written as five distinct pieces each episode needs to be viewed as a whole.
And going along with the theory that there are no true act breaks, I've even found that AMC and CTV in Canada use slightly different spots to insert commercials. And though I mapped out the plots of several different shows, there seems to be no clear pattern of scene order or length. I found this to be the same case with Dexter, where I know that the writers make a conscious decision to place the scenes where they belong best in each story, without much regard for any "structure".
However, I did discover that the plots themselves follow a structure (in length). There are typically about 24 scenes in an episode. The A plot is always about Don, and the tragedy of his life. This plot is always the longest, let's say 12 scenes. The B plot is less, maybe 8 scenes, and the C plot is usually about 4 scenes. Then there are runners which I don't think are particularly necessary as they usually deal with season archs.
For simplicity, I am only writing A, B and C. My A plot is about Don & Betty, my B plot is based around Peggy and the "ad of the week" and my C plot is about Salvatore exploring his... options.
I've structured it like so (which will probably change):
Act 1: A/B/B/A/A
Act 2: C/C/B/A/A
Act 3: B/B/A/C/A
Act 4: A/B/A/A/B
Act 5: B/B/A/A/C/A
Thinking up plots for Mad Men was fun. First I did extensive research on the 1960s in general, 1960s advertising, Madison Avenue, race relations, gay culture, and the changing morality of the times. Then I tried to think of what would be the most interesting, visceral thing to happen to the characters of the show within this period. I tried to keep with the show and have it be more about internal conflict than external, though there is still plenty of both. After thinking up various different plots, I had to ensure all the plots and the "ad of the week" were tied into themes that resonate with each other as well as society today.
Mad Men is a period piece but it's like good science fiction - it's showing our society through a prism. It may look very different at first glance but it's supposed to be showing us, and the themes and plots for a spec of the show have to reflect that.