Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

Guest Blog: “Pilot Season” by Serge Kozak


The Pilot Season, what is before and what follows 

Pilot Season is usually the time of the year, when all TV series promoters produce prototypes of their new series, called “Pilot”.

What  actually is the development cycle of a TV series?

It starts in autumn, when a writer/producer with good reputation presents his or her idea for a new series to the network or studio.  If the latter like the idea, they decide to make a Pilot. The writer/producer works out the script of the Pilot. If they like the script, too, they start preparing for shooting the Pilot.

In the first months of the new year, a casting director is chosen to breakdown the script. The breakdown contains: the names of the producer, writer and director of the Pilot; the studio; the type of show (drama, sitcom, action, etc.); when and where the shooting will be; description and requirements of the roles to be cast. The casting director should find the regulars, co-stars and guest stars, about twenty actors altogether for a pilot. This happens in about ten weeks.

Then Pilot season comes, usually January to March, even June of late, which is the hectic casting time for all actors.

The order of auditions is as follows: pre-read with the casting director, callback for the producer, a second callback for the producer to make the final choice of actors. The studio and the selected actors then start a “test deal option” – a detailed negotiation between the actor’s agent and the business department of the studio, leading eventually to a contract of usually five years. This contract will be signed before the actor goes for a test before the executives in the studio.

This great audition is the moment of truth; there is no second chance for the actor that fails it, not even for the great ones. If the executives fall for the actor, he/she will go to the last, the network test before the executives of the network that will broadcast the show.

There are usually three or four actor competing at this stage, a very ugly but frequent situation. The winner however can count on at least $50 000 for fourteen days of shooting the Pilot. If the “actor’s option is picked up”, i.e. he/she is taken for the role in the series, big money is following – from $15 000 upwards per episode.

When a Pilot is ready, it goes to the network/studio along with the other pilots produced in the same time. Then a decision is made whether and which pilot will go to series.  This decision is announced at the so-called Up Fronts, a magnificent media event in New York in May, where the general public and the actors themselves come to know what the new season will look like and who will be in it. Series production starts in July or August.

Many pilots never reach the phase of series. Pity for the efforts and hopes.

Pilot Season is the event and time of the year that many actors build their life plans around. They all have to take part in it if they want to have a chance to end up on the TV screen. For families with children actors this could be a frustration, even a tragedy, when children are taken out of their common environment and forced to compete like the elders. That however is the price paid for early success.

Serge Kozak is the founder of Edictive, a studio management software and film marketing company.

October 6, 2012 Posted by | Guest Blog, networks, screenwriting, specs, writing | , , , , | Leave a comment

[Development Diary] Lowering The Bar – #1


Before I go any further, let me preface this by saying that yes, I know, I said previously that I was going to spend 2012 tying up loose ends and finishing all my unfinished scripts. And that genuinely was my intention until I was tipped off on an exciting new opportunity.

Developing for the web is something that I’d previously considered; one of my unfinished projects, Housemates, was designed with the web in mind as something that I could produce with friends as a showcase for all of our talents. But the opportunity to do it, have it seen by a mass audience and be paid for it was too good to turn up.

This particular opportunity presented some very interesting challenges; the site that will be hosting and producing the show, ChannelFix.com, is based in the Philippines, which meant that I had to produce something that could be filmed over there but their target audience is for the American 18-30 market (give or take) which meant I needed something that could appeal there. Not the easiest set of parameters to write to. And it had to be low-budget.

Given carte blanche to pitch them whatever came into my head, effectively, I pitched two shows; the first of those shows, Lowering The Bar, is in the later stages of the writing process, which made it a great time to write a development diary to tell you how I got where I am with the project now.

Because I had to make this show to such a narrow set of guidelines, I decided to go with what I knew (to an extent) and pitched a show about a guy who arrives in the Philippines with a couple of his frat brothers to save his uncle’s failing bar.

It’s a sitcom, which means that it needed potential for conflict, which always comes from the characters and the situation. A group of American tourists is always great comedy fodder, so that was always going to make things interesting. Put them in a foreign country with its own language and culture for the long haul and you’ve got endless material to play with. Throw in a bar and a beach and you’ve got great settings for them to get into mischief. But it always comes back to those characters. Let’s meet them:

Scott – Our lead, early 20s and a former business student. He’s there to make the business a success and to reconnect with his family, but he’s hiding a secret from his alpha friends – he’s gay.

Mike – Also in his early 20s and was an engineering student. He’s calm collected, smooth and suave. He loves the ladies but wants to expand his intellectual horizons too. He loves to fix things – either literally or figuratively – and approaches every situation in a careful, considered way.

Tommy – the stereotypical frat boy, Tommy comes from a wealthy background but lacks intelligence. The fact that he graduated from college with a marketing degree is a mystery to everybody. He wants to party and get laid, his stupidity will get him (and the others) into trouble and he has a far higher opinion of himself than he should.

Riley – You can’t have conflict between guys without throwing a girl into the mix, that’s just the way life works. So enter the ridiculously attractive, super-snarky and highly intelligent bookworm Riley. Riley is Scott’s cousin, it’s her dad’s bar and she’s staying for the summer. She wants to have fun, but she also knows that she needs to keep an eye on the boys to stop them from burning the bar down!

Now, I’ve been lucky enough (he says, ironically) to work in various bars for the last few years, giving me plenty of experience to draw upon for stories here, but the most important part of writing comedy is to collaborate. That’s why I’ve been workshopping this at Zoetrope among friends, including my favourite comic genius, Shaula Evans and one of the finest unsigned writers I’ve ever come across (a 2009 & 2011 PAGE Semi-Finalist, 2010 Finalist) Jen Zinone. If we get a full series, hopefully those two fine minds (and others) will come aboard to write episodes for you to enjoy!

So, what more can I tell you? Plenty, but I’ll save it for next time when, hopefully, I’ll have a final draft of the script in pre-production in the Philippines and I’ll see if I can;t wrangle some notes, pictures and tales from the set for you to paw through!

In the meantime, don’t forget that the workshop here is still open for business and, if you want to track me down on Zoe, maybe you can join the LTB team!

Until next time…

x

March 7, 2012 Posted by | Development Diaries, networks, screenwriting, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking after the pennies…


Inspired by a comment on Shades Of Grey by Jane Frost (Thanks, Jane!), I’ve finally found time – and a way – of talking about an oft-overlooked issue for the spec writer: budget. But this isn’t just about the cost of shooting your script, but the way everything you write on the page affects somebody on the production team and the importance of being aware of that. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to budget. Nobody wants to spend $100m producing a script by an untested writer – admittedly, there are a couple of exceptions – even if you have written the next Avatar. So in today’s lesson, we’re going to talk about the importance of making sure that your scripts are as production-friendly as possible. In an ideal world, a producer would love to see a script that he can shoot for free. He has more chance of finding a Golden unicorn ridden by a mermaid, of course, but the lower you can make the budget on your specs, the more chance you’ll have of someone producing it.

Making it as low-budget as possible should never mean you sacrifice quality, however. If your screenplay is a retelling of the 300 in space, it’s natural that we’re going to see massive fight scenes, lots of special and elaborate effects. I don’t see much chance you’d sell such a spec anyway – it’s a deliberately extreme example to illustrate my point – but always be aware.

So how do we tell the story we want whilst reducing budget to its bare minimum? Well, if you’re writing space-based sci-fi or the next Die Hard, I probably can’t help you too much. SFX will cost money and they’re genre staples. So here comes my first advice on that score: If you can write them, stick to the low-budget genres. What are the low-budget genres? They’re the ones that, when you walk into Blockbuster, you see hundreds of. (I’m assuming you still use Blockbuster. If you’ve gone strictly Netflix/LoveFilm you need to hunt down a Blockbuster and take a look sometime!) We’re talking horrors, psychological thrillers, comedies, romances, coming-of-age dramas and their crossovers and ilk. You see so many of these being made because they cost much less to produce. And people are making so many of them for exactly that reason: it’s good business. These genres have huge fanbases and a low-cost, which makes them infinitely profitable.

Interesting fact: Remember that scene in Swordfish where the helicopter is flying the bus around Los Angeles? That scene cost $13 Million to shoot. In The Bedroom (starring Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek and Nick Stahl, written by Todd Field & Robert Festinger, directed by Field and produced by Good Machine Films) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture that same year. Its total production budget? $1.6 million. You could almost have made that movie ten times for what it cost to shoot that one helicopter scene. You don’t have to go big budget to make a big impression.

To keep your budget low, there are some pretty obvious things to keep an eye on. First, you need to reduce the ‘essentials’ as much as possible. Kevin Smith shot Clerks for $28,000. How? It has three locations, around six actors and no special effects. It’s also a classic, won two awards at Cannes, one at Sundance and was nominated for three at Independent Spirit and launched Kevin Smith’s career.  Again, an extreme example, but it’s exactly what producers hope for – a break-out hit that cost (effectively) nothing to make and made a 1000% profit. And guess what? You could easily write the next Clerks if you just keep an eye on your budget as you write.

A good grounding for writing low-budget spec features is to become a student of TV, especially sitcoms. Sitcoms have a core cast of four-six and three or four regular locations. You can test this for yourself if you wish – look at any sitcom and count the locations that appear regularly. Friends had four (five in later seasons), Cheers essentially had two, Frasier three, How I Met Your Mother had two for the early seasons. TV, for the most part, writes to a lower budget. That’s why the lessons learned there are so good.

So what have we learned so far? Keep characters and Locations to a minimum. But how does this affect the rest of the production crew? Location scouts and set designers are often paid by the day – per diem – the less locations you have to find or build and the less locations you have to dress, the less time you need to have these guys on the payroll. That saves money. You can save even more money by keeping the events that go on inside a set as neutral as possible. If you destroy a set in your script, you have to redress it if it appears afterwards. Another day’s money for the set designer. Likewise, if you keep the number of cast members to a minimum, you have to spend less time casting them. That reduces the money you’re spending on casting directors. Also, less actors means less actors salaries. And the two play into each other, too. Try and choose less populous locations for your scenes; a scene at Grand Central Station will require not just hiring the station for a day (tres expensive anyway) or building a replica but also filling it with extras. If each extra is costing $80 a day, that adds up. Nobody is going to believe your lead is at Grand Central in the morning rush if there are five people milling around. Always be considering how busy your scene is versus the cost of it if you want it to appeal to a producer.

Now, my next piece of advice goes against the grain. Assuming you intend to forge a career as a writer rather than having a one-shot hit (if you do, great, but it’ll take much, much longer) then your first sale is most likely going to be a production company you’ve never heard of, one you’ll Google a hundred times to check they’re legit, and they’re going to want the budget to come in just above zero whilst shooting in ten days. An easy way to achieve this is to fly against accepted technique – and it is technically very wrong in the world of features – and tell, don’t show. Obviously, if you’re submitting to top dogs or people who read too many screenwriting books without getting any real knowledge, they’re going to hate this. But here’s a simple home truth: Sometimes you can save money by having actors talk more. Again, Clerks is the best example of this. Rather than showing events that affect the story, the characters simply talk about them. Why? Because showing them required building an extra set, finding an extra location or hiring an extra dozen actors. You have to be skilled at this though. Don’t turn your film in to a monologue or have an extended scene filled with a conversation about ‘that time we were involved in that massive car chase where seventeen people died, that oil tanker exploded and half the LAPD smashed up their vehicles’ unless there’s a punchline. Because people would rather see that stuff. But in situations where you can save a scene by having someone talk about it, do it. I see a lot of writers using flashbacks to show trivial events and, yes, it’s great in theory. It adds colour. But shooting that insert gag where we see the guy running through the Mall Of America in a mankini being chased by dogs is going to cost money. And it’s just as funny as an anecdote in the scene you flashed back from.

Again, reduction of scenes, characters and budgets.

Assuming you absolutely must fulfill some latent desire to write the next Star Wars, I’ll give you a little advice regarding budgets and special effects: Minimise the use of special effects as much as possible, and always be thinking about their plausibility. I always wanted to see a film where the guy gets kicked off the space shuttle and his helmet comes off, forcing his head to explode. But you can’t just force an actor to put an M-80 in his mouth and film it. How are you going to shoot those pick-ups later on? Besides, I bet M-80s taste horrible. To do it more practically – and legally – you’re going to have to use CGI. CGI requires hundreds of man hours by animators and technicians. They don’t work for a daily rate, either – most charge by the hour. If that head-exploding scene needs a hundred animators putting in a hundred hours each at $100 an hour, that’s a million bucks you just added to your budget. I could shoot Clerks 33-ish times for that. Imagine you go more elaborate – Waterworld, for example. I know of several SFX experts who laughed when they heard about that film. Set designers panicked. You, as a newbie spec writer, cannot write that sort of film and hope to sell it as your debut picture.

You may not be a SFX guru yourself, but always be thinking of the plausibility of any special effects. Stunts apply here, too. As a golden rule, if you’ve never seen something similar done, assume it can’t be. It may not leave room for originality, but therein lies the challenge. Earn respect for that first work, though, and people will listen to the next one.

My final word on this – for now – relates to setting again. But not locations. Oh no. We’re going to talk time. See, you may have looked through the first few paragraphs and thought ‘Well, I’ve got a comedy, it has three actors, one location and no SFX. But it’s set in the 1720s.’ Guess what? That’s your budget through the roof. Period pieces cause untold hell for location managers, set designers, prop masters and costume designers. They now have to find or build locations that are architecturally relevant to the time period, design and make costumes that are period-appropriate and make sure that none of the props are anachronistic. Often these jobs cross over each other, causing chaos, confusion, extended production time and major, major headaches and budget problems. This came to mind as I have a passion piece I’ve been planning for a while; a TV teen drama set in the 1920s. I’ve wanted to try this for a while but, in my heart, I know I can’t sell it on spec. I can’t sell this until I have the credits to establish my credentials as a writer, a showrunner and (probably) a producer.  Will it stop me writing it? No. Will I be pitching it? No. Not until I have a reputation that means I can demand that agents, producers, networks and studios trust me with their time to pitch it. So there goes my final piece of advice for spec writers: Avoid period specs entirely.

I’ll be back as I think of more (maybe Jane will spot something I missed. Feel free to weigh in, Jane!) but, in the meantime, I’d like to invite you all to join my Writing Workshop & Forum. We’ve started slowly, but I’m eternally grateful to the eight members who’ve joined so far; we’re all welcoming enough that you’ll enjoy your stay, and don’t be disheartened by the lack of activity so far. We’re still taking baby steps, so come along, post whatever’s on your mind, ask questions and enjoy. Whilst I’m plugging things, I’d also like to recommend a new social networking site for industry personnel, aspiring or otherwise: Stage32. It’s basically Facebook for the film industry. Except without getting a thousand invites to join Farmville every hour.

On a very personal note, I’d also like to plug a favourite charity of mine, which you’ll see advertised in the sidebar to the right also. They’re called To Write Love On Her Arms, a charity that focuses on helping people – particularly young people – who are struggling with depression, self-harm issues, addictions and suicidal feelings. I’m pretty open about the fact that I’ve suffered with all four problems, and I wish there were more charities who were willing to reach out and help folk with them. I don’t want to guilt anyone into doing it or beg, but I would like to ask that if you’ve enjoyed my blog and found anything I’ve posted useful, please click on either the link above or the one to the right and help them out a little. Even if it’s only a dollar, I’m certain they can put it to good use. Who knows? One day I or someone you love could use their help. The work they do is so valuable, so important, and I cannot state my passion for helping them out strongly enough.

Until next time, in the words of Jerry Springer, take care of yourselves… and each other.

K xx

October 2, 2011 Posted by | lessons, networks, screenwriting, specs, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

[Development Diary] – Improper Representation #2


I’m so excited to be able to say this, but my new pilot, Improper Representation is now at a stage where I think I can call it ‘complete.’ Of course, no script is ever completely finished; every so often you go back and change a word here, a phrase there, you get a note about something from someone, etc.

That said, I’m very happy with the current draft; it’s only the second pass I’ve taken at it but it’s already looking near-near perfect and has had some very positive reviews so far.

Writing this script has been another wonderful learning experience for me. Being a comedian, it comes as a surprise to people when they learn that I don’t write many comedy-based scripts. In fact, this is the first teleplay I’ve written that deliberately crosses into the genre, and reviews suggest that it’s funny, intelligent and culturally relevant, which are three things I was shooting for but didn’t know I could achieve.

On the off-chance any producers or agents are reading this, Improper Representation is available to read upon request, with a logline available on the My Work section of the site.

For those regular readers looking for me to write another formal lesson, I play to post my thoughts on creating great dialogue on Wednesday at the latest.

August 22, 2011 Posted by | Development Diaries, Improper Representation, screenwriting, specs, writing | , , , , , | 2 Comments

[Development Diary] Improper Representation – #1


It feels strange to me to be writing a development diary about something I’ve completed a draft of; usually I write these to explain my writing process and to help myself to organize some of my thoughts semi-coherently. With Improper Representation it’s all been very different to my usual methodology.

Ordinarily, an idea hits me, I scribble some note down, play with the idea in my head for a few days and sit down to write it, piece-by-piece, as the ideas come to me. In this case, the idea just hit me, so I scribbled down the basic premise (which was ever-so-slightly longer than a logline) named my characters and – BOOM! – got straight into the writing of it. Two sittings later (around six hours total, for those interested – no, I have no idea where that burst of writing energy came from either) I have a completed first draft of a thirty-page pilot script.

So what’s it about? Scott Weismann, 26, is a disgraced lawyer who flees the scene of his troubles (New York City) to return home to Los Angeles. After catching up with his high-school best-friend JJ, an out-of-work actor, he goes on a job hunt around the city only to find out that his reputation has preceded him. Nobody will hire him.

JJ, meanwhile, finds himself caught up in some office politics; his sister Rosie is in the mail room at a major talent agency -the agency that represents him – and whilst waiting for a meeting with his agent, he sees her being sexually harassed by her boss. After confronting her about it and a long wait he finally meets with his agent, who promptly informs him that he’s being dropped from the agencies books.

After lunch with the two boys, Rosie feels empowered. Called in by the boss, who wants to pimp her out to attract a new, A-list client, she finally reaches her breaking point, making his sexual harassment public and quitting her job. The three friends are at a crossroads. They’re all unemployed, all needing a new opportunity but maybe, just maybe, their shot at the American dream is staring them right in the face.

What happens next? You’ll have to wait and see if someone buys it to find out.

So that’s it, job done. Right? Nope. Now I’ve completed the first draft and, as is my custom, I’ve submitted it for review by my peers over at American Zoetrope (link is in the sidebar on the right) to see what they think; the advice they gave me was invaluable when I was creating Holland Park and I’m hoping they can be of the same help to me this time. Aside from them, the only people likely to read it before I have a final draft ready for pitching are close friends and family.

That said, it’s at this point that the most emotional investment goes into a script; whilst you might pour a small part of yourself into the writing, the characters and the story – an often-cathartic experience – the really emotional part is waiting for the reviews.

As a writer, or any kind of artist, you (and, in turn, your projects) live and die by their reviews. No matter how confident you are of your writing abilities, you never truly know how good something is until you show it to the world. If people love it, you feel on top of the world. If they think it sucks then, well, that sucks. The important thing is to keep fighting, to take any and all suggestions aboard and move on to the next project.

My next project? Well, aside from getting caught up with my reading for the contest, (I’ve had quite a few submissions so far. If you’re one of them, don’t panic, I’m getting there!) I’ve got another concept in mind that looks like it’s leaning towards being ether a sitcom or a romantic comedy feature, which I’m actively plotting right now.

I also have planning in motion for a new feature, which I’ve given the working title Invisible and tells the story of three teenage runaways trying to make a better life for themselves whilst living on the streets. It’s looking like this is going to be the grittiest, most emotional drama I’ve ever written. But that’ll be another [DD] for another day…

Until then, take care.

Kriss x

August 5, 2011 Posted by | Development Diaries, specs, writing | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Competition: It’s good for the soul.


As my regular readers will know – thank you for being a regular reader, by the way – I’m something of an oddity among screenwriters, because my main goal, my focus as an artist (that sounds pretentious, but writing is art, okay?) isn’t primarily on the golden ticket, the cash cow that is feature films. That isn’t to say that I don’t or can’t write them. After all, the principle is roughly the same with both media. But I’m one of the breed that would rather write for television than see my name stuck in the small print at the bottom of a movie poster every couple of years.

The trouble with being a television writer is how little support there actually is for the budding television writer. There are thousands more guides to writing for features than television out there, both on the web and in bookstores. There are arguably more opportunities to break into features in an age where everybody with a digital camera can become a director-producer-whatever else you want to hyphenate in there.

In television, you write thousands of specs, mail them out to anyone with a postal address who might vaguely know someone who occasionally does catering on the set of Days Of Our Lives in the hope that someone, anyone up there will read it and decide you’ve got what it takes. You call and e-mail hundreds of agents, literary or otherwise, hoping that one of them will say that they’ll read it and represent you. You get an unfathomable amount of rejections.

There are so many independent movie production companies at this time that if you shop a half-way decent 90 page script for long enough, someone will option it for way below Guild minimum and produce it on a shoestring budget. You’ll see your name in lights, on that movie poster, but in reality, very few people will actually see the fruits of your labour.

Despite that, the feature writer is rewarded, supported and encouraged. Not just by their thousands of peers on wonderful sites such as Triggerstreet and Zoetrope, but by the hundreds of people out there willing to run (and sponsor) competitions that offer the budding feature writer some much-needed affirmation.

In television, we don’t have that support. Going from the top of my head, the only two television pilot contests I’m aware of are the excellent TVWriter.com “People’s Pilot” contest and the ongoing Storyboard.tv contests, which have received mixed reviews. Aside from that… nothing. Some film festivals – usually the minor ones – offer contests for television writing, but at the cost of extortionate entry fees with no real benefit of exposure from them. There are plenty of festivals for produced television pilots, too. But nobody really offers the humble television writer the chance to get that positive affirmation.

With that in mind, within the coming hours I intend to launch a television writing competition of my own. Sort of. It’s not strictly a contest in traditional terms – there’s no cash prize, there’s no option or production deal on offer. The prize is something arguably more valuable: exposure.

For this contest, there will be no entry fee and no exaggerated promises. There is no deadline. You will receive feedback from me for your entries and you can enter as many times as you like. If I like what I read, I’ll post my review on the blog for the world to see and make the script available to download.

Why does that benefit you? Frankly, I’m something of a publicity whore. Every time I post to my blog, I pimp the link all over the net: On Zoe, on Twitter, on Facebook and to over 1000 industry professionals by posting the link to the various groups on LinkedIn of which I’m a member.

By the time you read this, I’ll either be in the process of or have already finished adding a page to this website giving all the competition details. The contest will be open to entries in the form of 30-minute sitcoms (pilots and specs), hour-long dramas (pilot and spec) and 30-minute soap operas (pilot and spec.) I’ll read anything written for television, with the exception of MOWs – you can enter those in most feature contests – as long as it’s in English. Though I may also consider scripts in French, Spanish and German (e-mail first to check, they’ll take me much longer to read and review. Especially if you want the feedback in one of those languages!)

Submissions are being accepted NOW. Click here for details.

I look forward to reading your submissions.

Kriss

August 2, 2011 Posted by | Contests, screenwriting, specs, writing | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Triggers for a premise.


I was recently directed by my friend Shaula to a web article about creating a show for the USA Network, which inspired me to talk about the things that can trigger you into writing.

In a nutshell, the article observes that all USA shows have titles that are common phrases in the English language, that they all take place on a sunny locale and that the lead character always has a wacky sidekick and an obvious love interest. Given these most basic parameters, it wasn’t long before I’d come up with a premise for a show, Boxing Clever, about a crime-fighting boxer/college genius.

The lead character would be a Columbia student who boxes to pay his way through college; his wacky sidekick would be his trainer, an ex-NYPD detective. His unattainable love interest the trainer’s daughter, who serves as a homicide detective with the NYPD. Yep, two quirky sidekicks, a love interest and family politics. This is almost HBO.

So let’s take it through the steps:

1. Find a Catchy, Bland Title, Preferably Two Words, That’s Already a Phrase in the Lexicon.

Boxing Clever – ‘To use inventive thinking above all other attributes in order to achieve an end goal.’ (UrbanDictionary.com)

Catchy? Check. Bland? Check. Two words? Check. Already a phrase in the lexicon? Bingo!

2. Create an Unlikely Duo; One Rule-Bending, The Other Uptight.

Oops. Still, I have an unlikely trio. The daughter would be uptight, by the book. The boxer will bend rules, he won’t think like a cop. The trainer? Thinks like a father who used to be a cop.

3. Make Someone a Rookie With a Desireable Area of Expertise.

The boxer? Used to be a Marine. And he’s studying Forensic Mathematics. Boom, done.

4. Add Will-They-or-Won’t-They Chemistry.

Look, the boxer is an ex-Marine, so he’s tanned, muscular and good-looking. Shes a bad-ass detective who’s also very, very hot. It’d be a crime if they didn’t get it on. And the victim would be the audience.

5. Add a Sunshine-y Locale…

I have it on good authority that New York sees sun in the summer. That’s good enough for me.

6. … So You Can Have a Poster With Characters in Sunglasses.

Well, the show’ll have actors, right? I can probably make them wear sunglasses for the time it takes to use a camera. Boom.

So that’ll be my sure-fire USA Network hit. I’m only half-joking with that pitch – they annoying part is that some people will actually consider that a good idea… which means the bad part is that by putting it on the internet I now have to write it faster than they do. Balls.

Anyway, let’s go interactive: Use the guidelines and the comment feature to pitch your own USA show to me. Best show wins a thumbs up.

I’ll be back with more shortly…

Kx

July 7, 2011 Posted by | lessons, networks | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Speculate To Accumulate


I know, it’s a cheesy-as-hell title. You’ll get over it, because what I want to talk to all of you about today (and it’s a growing number; I couldn’t have dreamed so many people would be reading my little screenwriting blog – thank you!) is every aspiring television writer’s biggest nightmare: the spec script.

Whilst I am not an expert – and if you’ve mistaken me one, I’m sorry. In this field they rarely exist – I just wanted to give you my point of view on this whole messy area.

Read any book, listen to the advice of any old-school screenwriting guru and they’ll talk about the spec script until the cows come home. They’ll tell you the following almost entirely too vague things:

  • Write an episode of a popular show that’s currently on the air.
  • Never write an episode of a show in its first season.
  • Never write an episode that continues, or makes reference to, a series’ story arc. As an addendum to this, they’ll tell you to (essentially) ‘always put things back where you left them’ – especially when writing a sitcom.
  • Never introduce a major new character.
  • Never try to get too ‘cute’ or ‘clever’ with your script; always write an episode that fits with the tone of the show.

Okay, perhaps not actually all that vague. And, for the most part, solid advice. But that doesn’t tell you what you should be speccing or how to work out what your script should be about. So I’m going to give you the benefit of my $0.02.

First of all, we should assess the aforementioned rules.

Write an episode of a popular show that’s currently on the air is good advice, but should never be taken as gospel when speccing for a show. Sometimes there are no good shows on the air in a particular genre. Trying to find a decent political drama on the air in 2011 is like trying to find Charlie Sheen in rehab – you know it should be easy, but it’s just not happening. So what do you do?

Well, you have two choices: the first is to write an episode of the best show ever made in the genre you’re struggling to find a current example of. If that’s a political show, that means writing an episode of The West Wing. The other is to take what some ‘gurus’ might tell you is a huge risk and write a spec pilot for a show in that genre. If you can pull it off – and, to be honest, if you can write a West Wing then a pilot in that genre should be a cakewalk – you’ve told your potential agent or employer two things: ‘yes, I can write a political show’ and ‘yes, I am capable of creating a show of my own.’

An offshoot of this advice is when there’s only one show on the air in a genre, when a modern show bears similarities to an older one or if the showrunner/production company has a history of predominantly working in the same genre. Under those circumstances, the choice becomes a little harder. The spec pilot is always an option, but if I were trying to get a staff job on Fringe, for example, that would not be the path I’d take.

Fringe, created by JJ Abrams, is basically a science fiction detective show. Each week our heroes go out and solve a case that brings them one step along the myth arc. So if we’re not going to write a spec pilot, which was are we going to go? Well, Fringe, bears striking similarities to one of the greatest sci-fi shows of all time: The X-Files. So one option to get to that writers’ table is to write a really good X-Files spec. Every book you’ll ever read will probably tell you this is a horrible idea; there’s a whole generation of TV execs who’ve never seen the show. But this is my blog, so I’ll give you the advice I think makes sense.

If you also think that’s a risk, I’ll present you with a ‘Plan B’ – JJ Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, was also the force behind a very similar show, Alias. You can pick up a series box set for peanuts these days, watch it over a couple of weeks and get all fuzzy over unraveling the Rambaldi mystery. Now write an episode of the show (I’d recommend something that slots in mid-second season or late-fourth, to demonstrate you can add to or carry the show’s mythology) that they never did, that works within the boundaries of the show.

Never write an episode of a show in its first season is advice given for the following two reasons:

  1. You don’t know if it’s going to be popular enough to get a second.
  2. You don’t have enough episodes to watch to get to know the characters properly.

The first part is true, and it’s a risk you’d have to knowingly take; understand that, if you do, the show may get cancelled and, if it does, it probably didn’t have the popularity to guarantee that any decision makers saw it. And if they didn’t see your show, they’re not going to understand how brilliant your script is.

The second part, however, is an outright lie. I know people are going to point me to a thousand other blogs where guys who wrote a million episodes of Star Trek say the opposite, so let me counter with this question: when was the last time you saw a show in which all the first-season episodes were written by the same writer? The only shows I can think of, in recent years, that had the same writer throughout the first season were Aaron Sorkin’s masterpieces of television, The West Wing and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.

So ask riddle me this: if one guy wasn’t writing every episode, that means more than one person must’ve been involved in the writing; how did they get to know the characters so quickly? Exactly – I’m not just picking wholes in the accepted wisdom, I’m also offering a new perspective. It’s perfectly acceptable to write an episode of a show in its first season; the truth is that the producers of that show will never read your script whilst that show is on the air anyway because of the massive legal minefield that puts them in. Which brings me to another point:

Always remember, when writing a spec script, that you’re not writing for the show you’re trying to get a job on. I promise you that David Shore is not reading House specs. I promise you that Al Jean (I’m assuming he’s the head honcho right now, it changes so often it’s hard to keep track)  is not reading Simpsons specs. And I promise you that Kevin Williamson is absolutely not going to read that Vampire Diaries script you’ve poured your heart and soul into. Or lack of soul. I’m not sure how that works with vampire shows.

If you’re speccing, spec for the opposite show. The rival show. Every showrunner has a vague idea of what their nearest rival in the genre is about, what they’re doing, etc. You want to write for House? Write a Grey’s Anatomy or a Castle. Want to write for The Simpsons? Show them a really good Family Guy. Want to write for The Vampire Diaries? Show them a great Pretty Little Liars or Dawson’s Creek. (Why Dawson’s? Remember what I said about ‘unique shows’ and ‘showrunners’ previous work’? KW created Dawson’s Creek.)

Never write an episode that continues, or makes reference to, a series’ story arc is theoretically good advice. And I thoroughly disagree with it. What if the show you’re speccing for often has several story arcs running at once? Dramas and soap operas often do. This is the one area I would absolutely advise not writing for a show in its first season. Why? Because you can always spec that ‘missing’ first season episode, elongating a story arc by 46 pages and showing how neatly you could’ve slipped into that writers’ room and contributed.

As an addendum to this, they’ll tell you to (essentially) ‘always put things back where you left them’ – especially when writing a sitcom. I actually agree, in part, with this addendum; the convention with animated sitcoms dictates that thirty minutes later everything goes back to normal. However, a large number of live action sitcoms do have a continuing storyline (Arrested Development being a prime example) that is constantly called back to but almost all of them do occasionally take a break for a stand-alone, animation-style episode. Frasier was particularly good at this.

Never introduce a major new character. Never, ever do this. Seriously. If you think there should be wiggle room on this, that I should have some counterpoint, you’d be wrong. Imagine reading a Simpsons episode and – boom – in walks Bobby Simpson, Marge and Homer’s 15 year-old eldest son that we’ve never seen before. And he’s still there at the end of the episode. You could get away with it if you write him out by the end (as they did with Herb, Homer’s older brother) but, for the most part, it’s best to stick with the show’s regular characters. Only staff writers can get away with such big moves and, well, sometimes they go wrong. The Cosby family had more grandparents than the average nursing home.

Never try and get too ‘cute’ or ‘clever’ with your script; always write an episode that fits with the tone of the show. This sounds like basic advice, but you’ll be surprised how often people submit things that they think are ‘quirky’ or ‘interesting’ enough to make them stand out in the mind of the reader. That episode of House you’ve written where the good doctor decides he wants to try being a blacksmith for the day and cures some obscure equine illness will stand out ad the reader will remember you – at best, for being an absolute whack job; at worst, for being a terrible writer. Either way, it’ll probably be the last of your screenplays they agree to read.

That said, a trend has begun recently for writing modernized versions or classic shows; 21st century-style episodes of Lucy or Bewitched have been known to capture the attention of readers as a novelty spec. And 21st century-styled episodes of things like Charlie’s Angels and Knight Rider have, terrifyingly, even started to go into production.

Now, having deconstructed the ‘rules’ of the plot, I’m yet t answer the question that I wrote this with the intent of answering. What exactly should you be speccing?

Well, you need to be conscious of two things: the genre you want to be working in and what everybody else is submitting.

So what genre do you want to write for? This is the most important question you’ll ever ask yourself as a writer and, very rarely, is ‘any’ the answer. In addition, what genres are you qualified to write for? You can research your House spec until you go blue in the face and probably produce a great one, but if you don’t have any medical knowledge, that’s going to take you months. But the great script is all that matters, right? The foot in the door? Not necessarily.

Should you be lucky enough to make it onto a top-rated medical drama, you’re going to be expected to turn in a script, at times, in under a month. Sometimes (although rarely) it could be less than a week. You might not have time to research a fantastical medical disease to keep viewers enthralled in that time, and Dr. Gregory House doesn’t deal with cases of the flu, no matter how entertaining your B-story featuring Wilson, Cuddy and Thirteen entering a speedboat race is.

So what should you be writing? Always start with a show or genre you know well. From my point of view, and speaking on a general basis, the genres I know best are teen dramas, police, legal and medical procedurals, sitcoms, reality-based sci-fi and female-oriented dramedy; what I don’t know is alien-based sci-fi, action, horror or soap operas. So I’m going to be very, very uncomfortable speccing a Coronation Street (or General Hospital for my American readers) or an episode of Battlestar Galactica because I don’t watch those shows. I don’t know the characters, the formats nor the genres.

On the flip side, I can very easily write a West Wing, House, Cougar Town or One Tree Hill. The lesson here is to always play to your strengths and, as Mark Twain once said, “write what you know.”

The other piece of advice I’ll give (gleaned from years of reading screenwriting books and other writers’ blogs, I’ll admit) is to be smart about what you spec. Never write for the most popular show in a genre if you can help it. Everyone who wants to do procedurals is speccing House or Law & Order or CSI now. Everybody who wants to do animated comedy is writing a Simpsons, Family Guy or South Park and, frankly, both are best avoided by now just because almost every plot that can be done has been done.

So, to close – and help you out – I’ve compiled a list of the shows for each television genre that I feel are worth speccing. This list is not exhaustive, but intended to provide inspiration. Incidentally, if you’re reading this, now would be a good time to check the date I’ve posted it (May 16th 2011), because these lists only have around a 12-month shelf life. Hopefully I’ll have posted a newer one by then anyway. Click the ‘spec lists’ tag to find out.

  • Action: 24, Sons Of Anarchy, Spec Pilot.
  • Cartoon: You probably still can’t go wrong writing a Tom & Jerry or Scooby-Doo, to be honest.
  • Animated Sitcom: American Dad, Robot Chicken, King Of The Hill, anything [Adult Swim].
  • Teens: Just take a look at the Disney or Nick listings; personally, I’d recommend Victorious, Big Time Rush or Wizards Of  Waverly Place. Spec pilots can be strong here.
  • Historical: The Tudors, Spartacus or Boardwalk Empire. Also a strong spec pilot genre.
  • Science fiction: Battlestar Galactica, Fringe and V seem to be popular. Flashforward and Jericho make great novelty pilots. If you want to go retro go X-Files or take a risk with a Dark Angel or Mutant X.
  • Fantasy: True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Buffy/Angel, Spec pilot.
  • Dramedy: So much scope here. Glee fits. Otherwise, Desperate Housewives, Ally McBeal, spec pilot.
  • Legal: The Good Wife.
  • Western: You have a choice here: Go retro with a Lone Ranger, modern-ish with a Deadwood or go post-modern with a Firefly. To be honest, this is a genre crying out for a good spec pilot.
  • Serial Drama: To be honest, you can throw s stone and hit one. Still stuck? Brothers & Sisters or maybe Treme.
  • Teen Drama: Hellcats, Pretty Little Liars, The Secret Life Of The American Teenager, 90210, Gossip Girl, The O.C. or Dawson’s Creek. If you feel super-ballsy, you could write a Veronica Mars or Life UneXpected, but definitely avoid writing a One Tree Hill. It’s just going into its ninth (and probably last) season, and people have been reading them for the last nine years.
  • Sitcom: So many to pick from, I’ll tell you which ones nobody wants to see another of for a while: Friends, Earl, Will & Grace. Only submit a Frasier if it’s exceptionally funny. Otherwise, go wild.
  • Soap opera: To be honest, they’re all the same and they’re only going to be read by soap opera producers. Best avoided, but if you must, be very careful on character usage. Watch a few weeks’ worth, you’ll see what I mean. And if you don’t, ask.
  • Police procedural: Rookie Blue is supposed to be the best thing to pilot in this genre at the moment. Though, if you get desperate, swing for a spec pilot and mid-season episode combo.
  • Medical: Everyone is sick of reading House and Grey’s now. Write a spec pilot, maybe write an ER or an episode of Mental. Not a wide choice in the medical genre in today’s market.

On that note, one last, all-encompassing pilot secret. One I shouldn’t be telling you because I’m going to dump one on the market myself soon: Get writing Castle specs. It covers three genres (police procedural, serial drama and dramedy), has strong characters and masses of unexplored potential. And, actually, the best spec I’ve ever read was a Castle that I reviewed recently by my friend Jennifer Zinone. Maybe, if I ask her nicely, she’ll let me upload it for you to read. Either way, definitely remember her name, she’s gonna be huge.

Until next time,

Peace x

May 16, 2011 Posted by | lessons, screenwriting, specs, writing | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

[Development Diary] Outbreak #1


Like the majority of writers, I find my most simple pleasure in life comes from adding text to a work in progress. To ironing out the wrinkles and tweaking the story. So this morning, whilst submitting it as an in-progress work (and back-up to my usual spec, Holland Park) to another potential agent, I decided it was time to knuckle down and finally get my first draft of the Outbreak pilot finished.

Outbreak is a sci-fi/event television concept for which I’m writing a ‘premise pilot’ – it’s a concept I’ve talked about before and one that John August brilliantly deconstructs (and, in fact, denounces) here. In this first episode, we meet our hero/heroine combination for the first time: Newly-promoted (the inciting incident) NYPD homicide detective JIMMY O’BRIEN and his super-genius high school senior girlfriend, ROBYN CAMPOS. We also meet a cast of supporting characters; LAUREN and MARILYN are Jimmy and Robyn’s mothers, respectively; JOHANNES VAN ZYL, Jimmy’s partner; MICK HARPER, Jimmy’s new boss in homicide; BARESI, the grizzled veteran of the homicide department; DR. STETLER, the department’s ageing forensic expert; PADDY O’MALLEY, owner of the cops’ favourite local bar; ASYA, AUSTIN and BRIONY, Robyn’s school friends and TRAVIS WILSON, Robyn’s history teacher.

Whilst almost every screenwriting guru in the world will be screaming “THAT’S TOO MANY CHARACTERS!” at me now, it’s perhaps worth noting that I consider them ‘supporting’ characters. This is very much Jimmy and Robyn’s story, but giving them a large group of people around them gives me scope as I move forward; one of my pet hates with television is when someone introduces a new friend. colleague or family member that we’ve never seen before, but they’re supposed to be ‘best buddies’ with. The Simpsons subverts this brilliantly. So the mothers may not appear in every episode. Baresi may not appear. Professor Wilson may not appear. I may only use one of Robyn’s friends at times, if any. O’Malley and Stetler would only appear when needed, too. Each character serves a specific function in the show; in the pilot, I introduce snapshots of them to the audience, but not so much that it would take away from the overall story.

The premise of the show if, for me, what made the project so interesting. We pick up our story on April 7th, 2031, eighteen-and-a-half years after a Smallpox outbreak decimated the global population, reducing it from the 7 billion(ish) it is now to just 100 million. While that may sound implausible as a premise, it’s worth noting that this is perceived, by government agencies around the world, as being a potentially very real threat. Even the CDC considers this a strong enough possibility to have an emergency plan in the event of such an outbreak. I’ve talked about this before, but my first challenge was how to convey this strange new world to an audience. In my first draft, I combined narration and pictures, a 5-page ‘history’ lesson that looked like this:

FADE IN:

EXT. NEW YORK CITY - DAY

TITLE: NEW YORK CITY - OCTOBER 2012

An elevated view over Central Park and the Manhattan skyline
captures the hustle and bustle of the world’s busiest city.

ROBYN (V.O.)
It was just a normal day in New
York City--

EXT. WALL STREET - DAY

Wall Street is full of business-types walking around in suits
talking loudly into cell phones. You couldn’t squeeze a
cigarette paper between the traders on the crowded sidewalk.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Wall Street was still packed, the
bankers were still trading--

EXT. BROADWAY - DAY

Broadway, a mix of tourists and arty types crowd the streets.
Names of shows in bright lights hang on theatres, scalpers
openly sell tickets on the streets.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Broadway sparkled with the bright
lights and promises of star names
in grandiose musical extravaganzas--

EXT. TIMES SQUARE - DAY

Times Square, as always, is alive with activity. Tourists are
everywhere and so are their natural by-product - souvenir
vendors.

ROBYN (V.O.)
That’s when it happened. The even
that everyone - the government, the
people, the experts - had feared
for over three decades--

INT. ENTRANCE OF 42ND STREET STATION - DAY

New York’s busiest subway station. At rush hour. There are
people everywhere, commuters from every borough, even from
outside the city. Thousands of people headed in every
direction imaginable. In there, somewhere, a man is dropping
a test tube.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Thousands of potential witnesses
missed the biggest crime against
humanity in human history; the
defining terrorist act of all-time.
If you’d seen it, you probably
wouldn’t even have noticed it--

INT. 42ND STREET STATION - DAY

Somewhere in the crowd from earlier, a man - his face unseen -
walks through the crowd. He’s dressed for business - a suit
and tie, a briefcase, a copy of the Wall Street Journal
tucked neatly under one arm. He’s knocked from side to side
by those passing by as they force their way through the
crowd.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Even if you had witnessed it, you
almost certainly wouldn’t have
survived. Hardly anybody did.

He nonchalantly puts his hand into his pocket and pulls out a
test tube. Without stopping, without even slowing down, he
throws it on the ground. It smashes immediately - the
beginning of the outbreak.

ROBYN (V.O.)
They’d been predicting these events
for years, right out in the open.
It was public knowledge that the
next big terrorist attack was going
to be biological. As simple as
dropping that one test tube of
Smallpox in the middle of a major
metropolis.

He carries on walking, unchallenged, unquestioned, everyone
was too busy to notice anything. The smashed glass on the
floor just regarded an inconvenience, as litter.

EXT. TIMES SQUARE - DAY

His face still unseen, the man emerges into Time Square,
amongst the thousands of people, all those tourists with
hotels to go back to and nations across the globe to return
to.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Years later, forensic experts
figured out that it started in New
York, probably in a tourist hot
spot, just by retracing the steps
of the first to die--

He stops among the gawping tourists that have stopped to
stare at the Jumbotron at One Times Square and again, reaches
into his pocket and drops another test tube before calmly
walking away, into the throng of people and disappearing into
the crowd.

INT. A NEW YORK HOSPITAL WAITING ROOM - DAY

Patients arriving in A&E. Some sign in, some are already
awaiting triage, most are coughing and spluttering.

ROBYN (V.O.)
At first the hospitals just assumed
that flu season had started a
little early--

INT. AN EXAM ROOM - DAY

A DOCTOR is examining a YOUNG GIRL, who clutches a worn-out
teddy bear as her MOTHER stands by, worried.

DOCTOR
Can you say ‘ahh’ for me, sweetie?
She does and he checks out the inside of her mouth, a
standard exam to check on a sore throat.

DOCTOR (CONT’D)
How long ago did you start feeling
sick?

YOUNG GIRL
Just yesterday and today.

MOTHER
She’s got a rash on her stomach,
too.

DOCTOR
Can I see it?

The girl lifts her t-shirt to show him her rash.

DOCTOR (CONT’D)
Looks like she’s got chickenpox.
It’s unlucky to get a cold at the
same time, but she’ll be okay.

MOTHER
Chickenpox? That’s not possible,
she’s had it before.

INT. A NEW YORK HOSPITAL WAITING ROOM - DAY

More patients, almost all coughing, all spluttering as
doctors run around attempting to triage them.

ROBYN (V.O.)
It was two weeks before anyone even
suggested smallpox. By that time,
thousands were already dead.
Emergency rooms across the world
were packed to capacity.

INT. NEWS STUDIO - NIGHT

A YOUNG NEWSREADER sits at a desk awaiting her cue as make-up
people and tech crew run around ready to go live. She’s
visibly extremely nervous and definitely too young to be in
the anchor’s chair under ordinary circumstances.

ROBYN (V.O.)
By the time the public became aware
of the outbreak, almost a million
deaths had been confirmed in the US
alone.

The chaos calms and the lights come up on the studio. She’s
live.

YOUNG NEWSREADER
Good evening. Breaking news as the
CDC confirms that the global
epidemic that has so far claimed
the lives of around a million
Americans is Smallpox.

INT. A BAR - NIGHT

A busy bar. Everyone is glued to the television as the news
breaks.

YOUNG NEWSREADER
The White House is urging people
not to panic and has announced that
it has deployed military personnel
to oversee the administration of
vaccines across the country.

EXT. A CHICAGO STREET - NIGHT

Chaos everywhere are the streets are lit only by the fires
that have engulfed various buildings. People are rioting,
looting, fighting in the streets as the police struggle to
contain them.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Eventually the people learned that
there simply wasn’t enough vaccine
for everybody. This led to
panicking, riots, looting.

EXT. LOS ANGELES CITY HALL - DAY

More rioting, with cars set ablaze as fire crews and police
desperately try to get the situation under control. A rioter
throws a Molotov cocktail trough one of the windows of city
hall. Others soon follow suit.

ROBYN (V.O.)
It would’ve been a nightmare under
normal circumstances, but with a
highly-contagious and deadly virus
already spreading like wild-fire,
the people turned their cities into
giant petri dishes, allowing the
disease to spread at a faster rate
than ever before.

EXT. A LABORATORY - DAY

A scientist in a biochem lab raids the stores of viols of
medicines. Finding the one he wants, he inserts a needle into
it, loads it up and injects it into his arm before grabbing
more viols and some spare needles.

ROBYN (V.O.)
The people with access to the
vaccines took care of themselves
and their families first. By the
time any got released to the
public, there was barely enough to
vaccinate more than a few million
people.

EXT. NEW YORK CITY STREETS - DAY

TITLE: SIX MONTHS AFTER THE OUTBREAK

The streets are almost deserted - at least by living human
beings. There are bodies laying in the street, some being fed
on by once-domesticated dogs who now roam freely.

ROBYN (V.O)
Within six months, the global
population had been reduced to less
than one-hundred million people.

INT. A HOSPITAL DELIVERY ROOM - DAY

A delivery room in an under-equipped and understaffed
hospital. On the bed, YOUNG MARILYN (mid-late 20s) is pouring
sweat as she gives birth. A MIDWIFE holds her hand as a
single doctor (DOCTOR #2) tends to her.

MIDWIFE
It’s okay, you’re doing fine.

DOCTOR #2
Okay, Mrs Campos, one last push
when I say.

Marilyn begins to hyperventilate - she wants this baby out
now.

MIDWIFE
Control your breathing.

She does as she’s told. Over this:

ROBYN (V.O.)
Of course, that’s the story as I
heard it. I wasn’t actually alive
when the outbreak started.

The midwife mops Marilyn’s brow.

DOCTOR #2
Now, push!

Marilyn gives an almighty push and we can hear the sound of a
baby crying.

DOCTOR #2 (CONT’D)
Congratulations, Mrs. Campos. It’s
a girl.

He hands her the baby and Marilyn looks into her daughter’s
eyes for the first time.

MIDWIFE
What are you going to call her?

MARILYN
Robyn. After her father.

Now, whilst those five pages explain the entire back story of the show and how the environment, the New York the characters live in, came to be that way, it also kills an element of the mystery of the show, takes up five pages and, frankly, is boring as hell.

So instead, I decided to use a more visual way into the environment. When time stands still, as we see in Cuba to this day, everything falls into disrepair. The image of New York, one of the world’s most glamorous cities, in such post-apocalyptic disarray is striking enough – even in disrepair, New York would still very distinctly be New York – but I wanted one more layer to the visual image to really set the tone:

EXT. NEW YORK CITY (MET MUSEUM) - DAY 1

TITLE: NEW YORK CITY - APRIL 7TH, 2031

A busy New York street, so run-down that it could be the
Bronx, Queens, Havana... or Sarajevo. The street bustles with
life as decades of old posters peel from the wall.

Despite the obvious signs of urban decay, there’s not one
single homeless person on this street, no street vendors.
Yes, it could be Cuba, but this ain’t Havana. This is the
Upper East Side.

The striking image is complete with the mention of a decaying Upper East Side; for most New Yorkers, the idea that Manhattan’s most affluent district could fall into disrepair seems almost unfathomable; it would be akin to tearing some of the heart and soul from the city. And that is what I wanted to get across.

With this change in my opening scene, the focus of that scene also had to change. I effectively had three choices: the montage (which I used for Holland Park), the walk-and-talk (a technique adapted from literature, whereby you introduce two characters in conversation with each other right from the start) or an action sequence. Sci-fi convention dictates that an action sequence is usually the way to go and, with a police officer as a lead character, the opening scene became obvious.

In the scene, which I’ve printed in full in a previous post (if you do a category or tag search on Outbreak you should find it), Jimmy witnesses a mugging whilst buying coffee, chasing the mugger around the Met and into Central Park, which is in an equal state of disarray, before apprehending him on the softball field. Introducing our hero, Jimmy O’Brien, with an act of heroism. But by closing the scene with the deliberately clichéd cop show line (“You’re under arrest, dirtbag” ), I also have an opening to introduce Robyn as a Deadpan Snarker (“Book him, Danno”) with a heart of gold; she ‘just happens’ to be in the park with a group of young kids she’s looking after right where Jimmy is making his arrest. Contrived? Definitely, but it lets me establish the relationship between my leads right off the bat.

Interestingly, it’s the middle of this scene where I choose to throw yet another, almost unnoticeable nugget of the mystery out to the reader and (hopefully) eventual viewer. Van Zyl arrives as back-up, taking charge of the arrest so Jimmy can spend a few moments with Robyn (the Bro Code demands it) but as he does, we learn that there’s something unusual about him: He’s South African.

Obviously, under normal circumstances, there’s nothing unusual about being South African. However, you do have to be a US citizen to serve with the NYPD. (You can be a foreign-born, naturalized US citizen, but this is dramatic license being used.) The other unusual thing in the scene, one that I’ll openly admit was inspired by Joss Whedon’s wonderful series Firefly, is one that’ll become a recurring theme: he talks to the mugger in Afrikaans. Later on in the pilot, I’ll introduce both the idea (and the reason) that everyone under the age of 25 speaks Afrikaans as well as English. Why? Well, I can’t spoil everything for you.

At the point in the script’s development that I’m at as I write this, I’ve introduced all of the above characters as organically as possible. The mothers are standard meddling mothers and best friends; Van Zyl is both Jimmy’s partner and a charming womanizer; Harper, Baresi and Stetler are involved in solving the case of the week; by virtue of Professor Wilson’s lessons, we learn small pieces about the history of the outbreak, etc. We’ve got our case-of-the-week and we’re in the process of solving it – red herrings, dead ends and werewolves, oh my! – and we’re leading up to two things: a solved case and another piece of the show’s myth arc being revealed.

What ‘experts’ may find interesting is that I’m not a ‘planner’ – I don’t plan act-for-act, scene-for-scene breakdowns for my scripts before I write them. I have an idea of what the story is or the episode. I know, in my mind, roughly how I intend to get there. Then I write it and re-write it until I not only have the story I wanted t write, but also so that it makes the most sense as an episode of a television show. Every screenwriting book you will ever read says my methodology s wrong. Ignore them; I find my method works better than their does for me. You may find that intricately planning things is the way forward for you. Nothing I write on this blog is intended as gospel, just a new perspective.

Fly by the seat of your pants. Live a little. And failing all else, keep writing… which is what I’m going to do now.

Until next time, vaya con Dios, mi amigos.

Kriss x

May 15, 2011 Posted by | Development Diaries, lessons, Outbreak, screenwriting, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Who’s Flying This Thing?


One of the hardest things when trying to conceive a pilot is trying to decide what your premise is. Obviously, this will depend on the kind of writer you  are; some like to have a story come to them and tell it, then work out settings later. Others, myself included, like to come up with a vague premise, an outline, and shade in the colours later.

There’s no right or wrong way, but I just wanted to share my method with you, based upon three of my own works. We’re going to talk about the conception of Holland Park,Outbreak and Housemates.

You’ll find it amazing how closely the things you grew up with and the things you enjoy watching will influence what you write, regardless of how much you try to avoid them. When  was a kid, and even to this day, I was a massive fan of Dawson’s Creek. I’ve since moved on through almost every show in the genre: The O.C.Gossip GirlOne Tree Hill,HellcatsWildfireHeartlandThe Gilmore Girls, 90210DegrassiThe Secret Life Of The American Teenager and I’m currently loving Pretty Little Liars and Hellcats. It’s safe to say that teen drama is my ‘thing’. I even moderate over at Teen Drama Forums, so it was a natural next step for me to one day create my own teen drama series.

There’s an old saying which, paraphrased, goes a little something like ‘to get where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.’ Before I could write a teen drama, I had to become expert on the genre. On its nature, on its conventions and on its history. It was time to do the thing many writers dread: Research.

I sat and watched every teen drama pilot I could get my hands on, even going back to watch shows I’d never, or hardly, seen before: Beverly Hills, 90210, the originalDegrassi  series, Party Of FiveMy So-Called LifeFreaks & GeeksSummerlandYoung AmericansHidden Palms… you name it, I probably watched it. By the end of it all, I had such a tight handle on the genre that I now feel I could write for almost any teen drama show going – and I was definitely in a position to create my own.

A key convention of the teen drama is that the shows are character, not event-driven. That means they’re more about how the characters interact with each other than catching the villain-of-the-week. The other convention that most teen dramas rely on is the premise pilot – usually someone new arrives in town, or an event happens that changes everything. Just think of these five examples:

  • The O.C. – Ryan steals a car, ends up in juvi, moves in with the Cohen family, leaving Chino for Newport Beach.
  • Dawson’s Creek – Dawson, Joey and Pacey have been fiends for years. Then those pesky hormones appear… and so does Jen Lindley, mysterious reformed bad girl from New York.
  • Both 90210s – new family moves to Beverly Hills from the mid-west and has to settle into an alien environment full of rich kids and the pretty/vacant.
  • Hellcats – Marty is going to have to drop out of college unless she can find a scholarship. When she discovers she can get one for cheerleading, she rents herself a copy of Bring It On and learns to both cheer and speak cheerleader to join the Hellcats. And learns that Cheertown is not a ‘Cheerocracy.’
  • Pretty Little Liars – four friends who have drifted apart following the death of their best friend are brought back together… when they start receiving mysterious messages from the deceased.

So now I knew where to start – I needed a premise. Because new kid in school is tried-and-tested, I started there. I’d read an article in one of the trashy gossip magazine where a British pop star, Lily Allen, had made a comment about growing up in the media spotlight. Since her father was also a pop star and actor, she’s got some insight into this. So I thought ‘what if the focus of my show is kids in a similar situation? Children of celebrities, child stars, their ‘normal’ friends? And what if my premise involve another child star, an American child star coming to join them. I now had a loose idea of my show’s premise.

Now I had to come up with a story. I had to introduce my American child star, Casey, into this world. And to do so, I needed to demonstrate how big a deal he was in the show’s world – so I had my three most ‘normal’ main characters, Anna, Drew and Gwen, be the first to spot him and comment on his presence. But now I had to explain why he’s there. Add a hoard of zombie-like paparazzi and Casey’s crying ‘mom’ and the show was in business. If you want to read it for yourselves, there are several drafts floating around the net – my penultimate draft can even be found over at TDF.

Also found amongst my lifelong televisual diet is a strong love of science fiction – though very, very rarely the aliens-in-space style of Star Trek, even if I am a Star Wars fan – I’m more a fan of the character-based human drama-type sci-fi: FlashforwardDark AngelA Town Called Eureka, Firefly/SerenityLostJericho and Fringe are favourites though, of course, I do love The X-Files, too. So when I decided I wanted to create a science-fiction pilot, it was always going to be along those lines. Never one to stray far from my teen drama roots, however, I also took inspiration from another of my favourite shows, Veronica Mars.

While this probably seems like a strange mix of shows to draw inspiration from, I went about putting the basis for the idea together in a very different way to Holland Park. ForOutbreak, I had to create the world first. In sci-fi, the setting has to be as much a character as any of the people (which I believe Joss Whedon mentioned during one of theFirefly DVD commentaries) and, as such, was the natural starting point.

I’d known for a while that I wanted to do a post-apocalyptic drama. At first, I wanted to set it against the backdrop of a nuke-based war or terrorist attack, which led to me beginning work on  a show called Archangel with my friend and fellow writer Dave Burgess. As time progressed, however, we began to discuss the implausibility of a nuclear attack on the scale we needed and couldn’t avoid comparing our show to Jericho. And, if you’re comparing the show you’re writing to another in the room, it’s going to continue as the idea progresses. That said, when the time is right, we’ll probably pick up Archangelagain

Having been forced to go back to the drawing-board and reexamine my approach to the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre, I started looking for a new premise. It was whilst watching an episode of The West Wing (Season 1, episode 5: “The Crackpots and These Women” – written by Aaron Sorkin) that I was almost gifted the premise, the germ of the idea. In that episode, C.J. Cregg (played by Allison Janney) learns that thee are only seven(?) doses of smallpox vaccine in the world and that, if one were to be released in Times Square, you’d have to surround the infected with 100 million uninfected people to contain it. Inspiration can come at you from all angles, even the C story in a popular television show.

Thinking that it had to be a made-up stat, one that couldn’t possibly be true, I took to Google to research it. Whilst exaggerated (there are about 7 million doses of the vaccine in the US and the CDC action plan calls for another 30 million to be imported from South Africa) the story had enough legs for me to make it a viable backdrop for a show.

So my story begins with a smallpox outbreak? No. although I tied that, it required so much narration that the viewer would’ve lost interest. The golden rule of screenwriting is ‘show, don’t tell’ – I needed to create a visibly decimated world. Enter Jimmy O’Brien, one half of my dynamic duo of lead characters:

FADE IN:

EXT. NEW YORK CITY (MET MUSEUM) - DAY

TITLE: NEW YORK CITY - APRIL 7TH, 2031

A busy New York street, so run-down that it could be the
Bronx, Queens, Havana... or Sarajevo. The street bustles with
life as decades of old posters peel from the wall.

Despite the obvious signs of urban decay, there’s not one
single homeless person on this street, no street vendors.
Yes, it could be Cuba, but this ain’t Havana. This is the
Upper East Side.

A WELL-DRESSED WOMAN - well-dressed for 2012, anyway - in her
early forties stops outside the Metropolitan Museum Of Art,
where the historic building has started to fall into
disrepair, some of its windows boarded.

As she stops to check a message on her cell phone, she’s
knocked screaming to the floor by a passerby, but this is no
accident. A MUGGER grabs her phone and purse and begins to
make a run for it.

Her scream alerts JIMMY O’BRIEN, 19. He’s tall and handsome,
a fully-uniformed member of New York’s Finest. And he’s been
interrupted whilst buying coffee. He quickly spots the mugger
and gives chase.

JIMMY
Van Zyl, call it in!

His partner, JOHANNES VAN ZYL, 28, radios the mugging in
immediately. The mugger cuts around the back of the Met and
sprints straight into Central Park as Jimmy gains on him with
almost every step.

The park looks the same as it always has until they cross
East Drive and the mugger makes a break for the softball
field with Jimmy only a few strides behind.

EXT. CENTRAL PARK (SOFTBALL FIELD) - DAY

The softball field looks like hell. The grass is a little too
long, as though maintaining it hasn’t been a priority. It’s
here that Jimmy finally catches the mugger, bringing him down
with a tackle that’d make Ray Lewis proud.

JIMMY
You’re under arrest, dirtbag.

[Apologies for the formatting, WordPress doesn’t allow for proper script formatting.]

With this opening scene, I’ve set up the show’s world. We now know that we’re 19 years (ish) in the future  – you should always spec a time-related pilot for the next year, it probably won’t be made the same year you write it – and that New York is stuck in 2012, in much the same way that Havana s often said to be stuck in 1955. Also, note that I’ve made a point of mentioning the urban decay and that we’re on the Upper East Side. The two would rarely be synonymous in the modern day – it tells the reader that something isn’t right in this world right from the start.

What was very important to me with Outbreak was that it shouldn’t be overtly sci-fi. As important as the smallpox-related backstory is to the show, it’s something that can be revealed over time as necessary. This show is about characters, but it’s also a mystery giving me the perfect opportunity to marry it with two other genres: The police procedural – Jimmy is promoted to become a homicide detective during the first ten pages – and, showing elements of my Veronica Mars influence, the teen detective show.

Whilst the overall arc of the show is about finding out who is responsible for the original outbreak, Jimmy and his high school senior girlfriend, Robyn make for a formidable team, each solving their own cases and, in the process, gaining a nugget or two of information about the outbreak itself – one step closer to their overall goal.

This type of show is often said to be the hardest to create – and they’re right, it’s no cakewalk – because of the complexity involved. You have to know from page one who your ultimate villain is. You have to know how you want the pieces that track him down to come together but, more importantly, as with all television, you need to know how to go about keeping the audience interested in your show. I’ll discuss devices for that in another post.

Finally, because I’ve realized how long this post as been – verging on a novella – I want to talk a little about the conception of HousematesHousemates is a pilot borne of necessity; like several of my friends, I’m a frustrated actor. I don’t live in London, where most of the work is, nor can I afford to. So I decided to create a project that we could all use to showcase our abilities. Noting the success of web series such as The GuildAnyone But Me and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog, I decide that what we needed was to make a web show of our own. However, that wasn’t without its problems – when self-producing, you’re responsible for both the budget and the fundraising on your show. And since I’m no millionaire, I had to do the near-impossible: Eliminate the budget. Housemates had to be a show we could make for free. But how?

Webcams. In the 21st century, almost everybody has the privilege of owning one, making them an ideal tool for the low-budget film-maker. I knew I could eliminate my budget simply by writing a show in video diary format. Such shows are rare and because, in our case, the actors are so spread out that it’ll be impossible to have them in the same room, I needed to aim for two things: strong characters and funny dialogue. On a show where you don’t have the budget to show the fridge, let alone blow it up, you need to get creative.

You need to capture your audience’s attention and you need to make them laugh. Fast.

So on that note, I’ll leave you with the opening scene of Housemates:

OVER BLACK

GEMMA speaks first, with a lazy Essex accent.

GEMMA
That thing you were saying in class
today?

The rustling of activity on a desk can be heard as she
pauses.

GEMMA (CONT’D)
“You only get one chance to make a
first impression.”

The sound of a CIGARETTE LIGHTER.

INT. GEMMA’S ROOM - DAY

Meet Gemma (18). She’s an attractive brunette, dressed
stylishly but wearing just a little too much make-up. She
takes a long drag from the cigarette in her mouth, then
exhales it upwards, slowly, just like Katherine Hepburn
might.

GEMMA
Well, I think I make a great first
impression.

She pauses again and starts to dig inside her nose with a
pinky finger. She inspects her findings and, satisfied, wipes
her finger somewhere out of shot. She then inserts the
cigarette back into her mouth.

GEMMA (CONT’D)
(slightly garbled by the
cigarette)
Don’t you?

FADE OUT.

TITLE: HOUSEMATES

Until next time,

Peace x

May 14, 2011 Posted by | Holland Park, Housemates, lessons, Outbreak, screenwriting | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment