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Posts Tagged ‘The Twilight Zone’

You’ve heard the story about how basketball great Michael Jordan once got cut from his high school basketball team, right? This is kinda of like that—The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling recounting some early stuggles in his writing career.

The writer in any field, and particularly the television writer, runs into ‘dry periods’—weeks or months when it seems that everything he writes goes the rounds and ultimately gets nowhere. This is not only a bad moment but an endless one. I remember a five-month period late in 1952 when my diet consisted chiefly of black coffee and fingernails. I’d written six half-hour television plays and each one had been rejected at least five times. What this kind of thing does to a family budget is obvious; and what it does to the personality of the writer is even worse. The typewriter on my desk was no longer a helpmate; it took on the guise of an opponent. The keys seemed stiff and unyielding. The carriage seemed bulky and sluggish, and the wastepaper basket would get crammed by the hour with discarded pages—a testimonial to my unsureness as to what to write and how to write itToward the end of this, I got a letter from Mr. Worthington Miner. He was a major-league, top-drawer television producer. And to get a letter from him, particularly a letter asking to see scripts, was like a third string pony-league pitcher getting a telegram from John McGraw telling him to come up and pitch for the Giants. I flew into New York to see him, my briefcase bulging with manuscripts. Tony read them, and during our second meeting informed me that he’d like to buy at least six of them. He was putting together a new show to be sponsored by an auto company, and my work impressed him. The feeling I got in that given moment was something akin to what a person feels when he is notified that he’s just won the Irish sweepstakes. The knees begin to give out and there’s a roar that begins some place down deep in the gut and starts to travel toward the throat. Fifteen minutes later I was on the telephone calling my wife and guzzling a Scotch on the rocks I ordered from room service (tipping the bellboy a whole buck), and adding up in my mind know very well by now how prophetic were his words, how much are six times six or seven hundred dollars. One week later, back in Ohio, I got another letter from Tony Miner apologizing and explaining that the show he was putting together had been shunted off to another agency and he would not be producing it. The guy who had won the Irish sweepstakes couldn’t find his ticket stub. It was that kind of feeling. For some perverse reason I saved Tony’s second letter; my wife put it into a scrapbook. And sometimes I take a look at it as a piece of memorabilia to document a bad moment that on the scale of a career’s ups and downs represents the bottom of the barrel. A writer’s career is studded with the near sales, the close hits, the almost-but-never-wases. And afterward, when he becomes accustomed to eating a little higher off the hawg, the bad moments get remembered. And no matter what you eat, it tastes like pheasant under glass.”
Rod Serling
1957 Introduction to the Bantam Paperback Patterns

P.S. Patterns was broadcast live on January 12, 1955 and was so popular it was broadcast live again with the same cast less than a month later.

 

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“Well somewhere along the line your drinks caught up with you and you got lost…”
The Twilight Zone episode Stopover in a Quiet Town

On this repost Saturday, I’m tapping into a post I originally wrote in 2009. Of course, Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone are ageless:

All filmmaking is embracing limitations because you always have to draw the line somewhere on running time and expenses.

The Twilight Zone was no exception. Now considered one of the best programs ever produced for television it had trouble finding an audience in the early sixties an actually only ran for a few years. Rod Serling wrote 49 original programs in three years which is an amazing output. According to The Twilight Zone producer Buck Houghton, Serling came up with a pattern that became the standard for all programs.

According to Houghton in his book What a Producer Does here are a few of the patterns they used.

Find an interesting character, or a group, at a moment of crisis in life, and get there quickly; then lay on some magic.

The character(s) must be ordinary and average and modern, and the problem facing him (her, them) must be commonplace. (The Twilight Zone always stuck people as identifiable as to whom it was about, and the story hangups as resonant of their own fears, dreams, wishes.)

The story must be impossible in the real world. A request at some point to suspend disbelief is a trademark of the series.

Embrace your limitations.

Scott W. Smith

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The Twilight Zone was in peril of not being renewed, season after season. It was not a hit, rating-wise; succès d’estime, yes but not the sort of series anyone could have predicted would be running thirty years later. [Rod] Serling’s skill as a writer has a lot to do with that…also his compassion for the human race as he saw it around him, from day to day. His optimism about the human condition led to stories that made one feel good about the race and its chances for emotional triumph. That, well told, will always sell.”
Producer Buck Houghton (The Twilight Zone)
What a Producer Does (First published in 1991)

P.S. Look at this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominations and look back on past Oscar-winning Best Pictures and see how many end showing an “emotional triumph.” Not all, but it’s an interesting gauge. And even in death there can be an emotional triumph—Gladiator, Titanic, Braveheart.

Bonus:
“The Twilight Zone at its best is better than anything else I’ve ever seen on television…Walking Distance is maybe the show’s best episode.”
Producer/Writer/director J.J. Abrams (LOST)
Time/ Top 10 Twilight Zone Episodes

Related Posts:
The Twilight Zone Secrets
Rod Serling’s Binghamton Roots
Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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“Now witness if you will a man’s mind and body shrivelling in the sun, a man dying of loneliness.”
The Twilight Zone, The Lonely  (1959)
Season 1, Episode 7 written by Rod Serling

We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age
The Heart of the Matter
Lyrics by Don Henley, J.D. Souther, Mike Campbell

There’s has to be a part of Spike Jonze that hates all of the comparisons being made about his film HerHere’s the short list I’ve read online; Weird Science, The Stepford Wives, Cherry 2000, Blade Runner, Pinocchio, S1M0ne, and of course, Electric Dreams. But as far as I can find, there is only one film that Jonze has publicly referenced and it’s a Woody Allen film.

“One of the movies I watched when I was writing [‘Her’] was ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors,’ because that script is so incredibly written. …There’s a lot of talking about the idea of what the movie is about, but mostly the characters are plowing through the story, and taking you through the story, with their decisions. That was really inspiring.”
Spike Jonze
7 Things To Know About Spike Jonze Directing Her

I imagine there’s another part of Jonze that’s glad people are talking about his film. It’s engaging audiences. It’s starting conversations about what love looks like in the future. What it looks like today. And makes us wonder where all this technology is leading us.

“I think that the movie, to me, is more about our relationship to each other, and our need for intimacy and connection, and the difficulties within ourselves that make that challenging — and the limitations within ourselves that prevent intimacy or connection; when it’s that thing we need, maybe the most. And I think those are timeless things. That kind of loneliness and longing and need for connection, and what connection means and what intimacy means to us. So I think that the parts that are about technology and the parts that are about the way we’re living in this modern world are sort of just the modern set of complications.”
Spike Jonze
Interview with Luke Goodsell

So let me thrown in one more story echo to Her, and it’s one that aired on TV (The Twilight Zone) ten years on before Jonze was born. Written by Rod Serling, The Lonely is about a man sentenced to solitary confinement on an asteroid. As an act of compassion to fight his loneliness, a supply ship leaves the inmate a robot named Alicia. At first he rejects Alicia because she’s fake, but as time goes on he develops feelings towards her. (The whole 24 minute program is below and stars Jack Warden.)

Scott W. Smith

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“I literally thought I might get fired at lunch.”
Ron Howard
Speaking about the first day of shooting his first feature film at age 23.
(Grand Theft Auto for Roger Corman. A film Ron co-wrote with his actor father, Rance Howard.)

Ron Howard has had one of the most amazing careers in entertainment history. First, as a youth and a young man he was an actor in several iconic TV shows and movies; The Andy Griffith Show, The Music Man, Happy Days and American Graffiti. He played Huck Finn, met Walt Disney and had cameo parts on Gunsmoke, Lassie, M*A*S*H, The Waltons, and The Twilight Zone. He acted alongside Hollywood legends John Wayne and Lauren Bacall in The Shootist where he earned a Golden Globe nomination.

Then as he shifted to directing he started his education at USC and finished it directing a feature for Roger Corman. From there he’s gone on to make over 30 more films including and as varied as Apollo 13, Cocoon, Slash, Backdraft, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and The Da Vinci Code. In 2002, he won two Oscars for his role as producer and director on A Beautiful Mind. Howard has also won a few Emmys as one of the producers of Arrested Development and From Earth to the Moon.

He comes from a perspective few, if any, can match— accomplish actor, low-budget filmmaker, Oscar-winning Hollywood producer/director. So just maybe he’d be a good person to listen to as the film business transitions to actually not having anything to do with literal film strips. A time when people are asking, “Will there even be movie theaters in the future?”

“It can be unsettlingAny time you go through a period when technology and delivery systems and distribution systems broaden and change, when there are generational shifts—all that influences what filmmakers do, the decisions they make, the kinds of projects they can work on. But I sometimes think about this 96-year-old guy, named Charles Rainsbury, who had a tiny speaking part in Cocoon. He’d been an actor and a film crew member when Fort Lee, New Jersey, was the center of the film world. He hadn’t been on a set since 1915, 1916. When I asked him how movies had changed since then, he said, ‘We didn’t have to shut up when they were shooting then; otherwise, it’s the same, hurry up and wait.’ And I find that comforting. As we go through this period of transition and worry about whether people are seeing our movies in multiplexes or on cell phones—or seeing them at all—I’m reminded that the thing I love is this process that hasn’t changed so much: You try to tell a story that’s meaningful, and share it with people. What really gets me out of bed in the morning is this lifestyle that I’ve always been a part of: the creative problem-solving, the collaboration.”
Ron Howard
DGA Quarterly/Fall 2009

See it’s not really the film biz after all—it’s the story biz. Go tell some meaningful stories.

Link to Ron Howard’s Oscar Acceptance Speech.

Scott W. Smith

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One of the great things about listening and reading about writers talking discussing the writing process is you see how everyone’s approach is different. Some write in the morning, some at night, some write quickly in bursts and others methodically take their time. Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) was very successful writing from theme, but fellow Syracuse University grad Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men) has a little different perspective on theme:

“When you’re talking about things like theme you have to be really careful because that’s not what’s going to make the car go. Okay? It’s what’s going to be what makes the car be good and give you a good ride. But that’s not what’s going to make the car go—at least not for me. You know, everybody writes different. But for me I have to stick—really closely, like it’s a life raft— to intention and obstacles. Just the basics of somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it. Make sure you have that cemented in place. Themes will then become apparent to you and you can hang a lantern on the ones you like. Bring them into relief, you can get rid of the ones that aren’t doing you any good and you can paint the car and make it look really nice. But the car isn’t going to turn over unless you see to the basics of drama, and drama is intention and obstacles, somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it.”
Aaron Sorkin
Creative Screenwriting podcast interview by Jeff Goldsmith
December 24, 2010

Related Post: Screenwriting Via Index Cards (Touches on the writing process of Aaron Sorkin.)

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“Theme is the primary statement, the purpose of the story, the overall message, the truth behind the story.”
Writing the Picture
Robin U. Rissin & William Missouri Downs

I first became aware of Diane Frolov‘s writing back in the 90s when I saw her name come up on the credits for Northern Exposure. She and her writing partner and husband Andrew Schneider wrote and produced many episodes of the quirky show set in Cicely, Alaska. They won a Primetime Emmy for their episode “Seoul Mates.” (They also wrote the great “More Light” scene that I have mentioned before.)

But Frolov’s writing credits go back to Magnum P.I. and the TV program The Incredible Hulk. And in the days since Northern Exposure Frolov’s most memorable work has been as a writer and producer on The Sopranos. She was on the Sopranos team that won an Emmy in 2006 for Outstanding Drama Series.

Though I don’t watch much TV, I’ve always been a Northern Exposure fan and put it up there with The Twilight Zone as television at its best. And I’ve always thought part of the reason I ended up in Cedar Falls, Iowa was due in part for the fondness of quirky Cicely, Alaska. (And I’m fond of pointing out that John Falsey, co-creator of Northern Exposure, has an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.)

Twenty years ago Frolov was interviewed by William Froug, who she studied with at UCLA (MFA Playwriting), and was asked what was the most important thing to know before writing a screenplay;

“I would say theme. You really need to know what the piece is ‘about’ and you have to make sure that all plot turns and character arc elucidate and project that theme.”
Diane Frolov

Recently, Brian McDonald who wrote the book Invisible Ink and has a blog of the same name, sent me a link to The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling who wrote in a letter  basically the same thing as Frolov.

“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a story line or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
Rod Serling letter to Dave Pitt

Maybe that explains the connection to Northern Exposure and The Twilight Zone.

Now writers are not in agreement with the idea of starting from theme. Some goes as far as saying that the writer should never even be aware of the story’s theme. Many, like  Robert McKee, say that starting with theme before story puts the cart before the horse.

“The Story tells you its meaning, you do not dictate meaning to the story.”
Robert McKee
Story

The fear of starting with theme (or a controlling idea or moral premise as some call it) is that you fall into didacticism or a sermon. And there are plenty of examples where heavy handed themes weigh down stories. But perhaps that’s a matter of the talent and skill of the writer.

Just because a baseball pitcher has an ineffective fast ball or curve ball doesn’t mean fast balls or curve balls are bad. No those are the staple of every baseball pitcher. He will be judged (and his ERA will reflect) the skill in which he uses his fastball and curveball.

And in the case of Frolov and Serling their work has shown that starting from theme can be very effective. (And you can put Charles Dickens in the camp of starting with theme.)

Lastly, Froug ended his interview with Frolov by asking here is she had any thoughts that she’d like to express. (And keep in mind that her answer is before all her Emmy nominations and wins.)

“To have courage and really love what you do. But not to lose sight of the life around you. You’ll find, as you go through the (writing) process, there will be so many people who will tell you that it is impossible and that you can’t do it. You’ll have your heart-broken so many times, and you just have to sustain yourself with your vision. And, as I said, your love of what you do.”
Diane Frolov
The New Screenwriter Looks at the New Screenwriter
Page 273

P.S. Even though the last new episode of Northern Exposure aired in 1995, there is still a group of people who gather yearly for Moosefeast, a Northern Exposure Fan Festival that takes place in Roslyn, Washington where the series was filmed. I also like to point out, that the final song of the final episode was written and performed by Iris DeMent who now lives in Iowa. Actually, in the same town where Northern Exposure co-creator, John Falsey, went to college. (Maybe there is more of a connection to Northern Exposure and The Twilight Zone than I thought.)

Related post: Writing from Theme (Tip #20)

Scott W. Smith

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“I don’t think that calling something commercial makes it stink.”
Rod Serling

“A legend doesn’t die, just because the man dies.”
The Twilight Zone episode A Game of Pool

Rod Serling was born in Syracuse, New York and joined the U.S. Army the day after he graduated from Binghamton Central High School where he had worked on the school newspaper. During World War II he fought in the Philippines where he routinely saw the casualties of war that would shape his life and writing. He was injured himself , received the Purple Heart, and was discharged in 1946.

Afterwards he attended Anitoch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio where he got involved in theater and writing radio dramas. He received his BA degree in 1950 and moved to Cincinnati to work in advertising writing for radio and television. In less than ten years he created his signature show, The Twilight Zone.

In a 1959  TV interview with Mike Wallace, Serling told about how in 1951, at a diner in Cincinnati, he decided to leave the security of his advertising job in Ohio to write freelance for television programs.

“The immediate motive at the time, the prodding thing that pushed me in to it, was that I had been writing at the time for a Cincinnati television station as a staff writer—which is a particularly dreamless occupation, composed of doing commercials. Even making up testimonial letters. As I recall there was a liquid drug on the market at the time that could cure everything from arthritis to a fractured pelvis and I actually had to write testimonial letters, and on that particular day I’d just had it. And though I had been freelancing concurrent with the staff job, the best year I’d ever had (freelance-wise)  I think we netted $700 which is hardly even grocery money, and that one night we just decided to sink or swim and go into it.”
Rod Serling

Serling swam. He would have been 27-28 years old at the time and six months after that decision he moved to Connecticut and then New York. Serling kept building his career in TV and one of the first programs to show his genius was Requiem for a Heavyweight for the Playhouse 90 TV series in 1956.  But his greatest success came when he launched the The Twilight Zone on CBS on October 2, 1959.

Despite its enduring popularity, The Twilight Zone didn’t draw large audiences, nor was it a financial success for CBS when it first aired. The show was cancelled in 1964. Serling whose normal workload was 12-14 hour a days, seven days a week was burned out on TV. He wrote well more than half of the 156 episodes, and grew tired of having to fight the corporate sponsors and the censorship imposed on him.

Not thinking The Twilight Zone would have much of a future he sold his rights to the show for $500,000. which would have cost him and his estate tens of millions of dollars. He turned to teaching in his later years and died at the young age of 50.

P.S. A couple of days ago I said that at one time Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise and George Clooney all lived in Kentucky at the same time. Well, just over the Ohio River at one time Rod Serling and Steven Spielberg would have lived in Ohio at the same time. In fact, I’m not sure how long Spielberg lived in Ohio, but he was born in Cincinnati in 1946 so he could have even been in the same city—heck, at the same diner—as Serling when he had his epiphany. Maybe not a big deal, unless you believe in another dimension, a dimension of both shadow and substance, a dimension only found…in The Twilight Zone.

Scott W. Smith

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Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes
I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again
Say goodbye to Hollywood

Billy Joel
Say Goodbye to Hollywood

There is a lot of finger pointing going on in the film & TV business right now. (As I write this L.A. County has an unemployment rate of 12.7%, and the film industry has not been spared. The Writer’s Guild of America reported for the fiscal year 2009 that screenwriter’s earnings decreased 31%. )

Who and what is to actually blame for Hollywood’s economic downturn that has resulted in fewer script sales and a greater loss of production jobs? Is it the general downturn in the economy or the rising cost of production? Is it the tax incentives that states outside L.A. and even countries outside the U.S. are giving to lure business away from California? Is it the Internet and the fact that spending two hours on Facebook is more interesting than many two hour movies?

Yes. It’s all the above and more.

Once upon a time there was this company called Fotomat. (Yes, I’ve written about Fotomat before but it is a favorite metaphor of mine.) They started in the 60s, seemed like they were everywhere in the 70s, but by by 1980 they had peaked. Their little yellow huts in parking lots were cultural icons back in the day. Now they’re cultural relicis and every once in a while you can spot an old converted Fotomat building that is now converted into a coffee hut or a wind-tinting business. What happened to Fotomat? Well, it’s pretty simple.

They niche they careved out was turning around photos in one day. That was cutting edge in the 70s, but as one hour photo places starting gaining ground in the 80s and then the digital boom in the 90s they had nothing to stand on. (The chant “Obsolete! Obsolete” from the The Twilight Zone (1961) episode The Obsolete Man comes to mind.) In an instant world there wasn’t a big demand for people wanting to get their photos the next day.

From 1800-1840 Nantucket was the “Whaling Capital of the World.” Youngstown, Ohio was once the seventh largest steel producer in the nation. My grandfather used to work for the Youngstown Sheet & Tube and I found an old book the company put together in 1950 to celebrate 50 years in the steel industry. In the opening paragraph of the book there is this line, “This Company looks forward to another fifty years, and then another, ad infinitum….” There wasn’t a Youngstown Sheet & Tube around to celebrate in the year 2000.

Seven hundred tons of metal a day
Now sir you tell me the world’s changed
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name
Youngstown
Bruce Springsteen

I’ll spend the next few days looking at how Hollywood got to be Hollywood and then look from a creative and economic standpoint at where I think screenwriting, production and distribution is all heading.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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