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Posts Tagged ‘TV writing’

“I never saw myself as a sitcom person, but I was waiting tables and I was like I have to figure out something and I wrote this script that was super dark, but when I put it into Charlie’s [Charlie Day] hands or Glenn’s [Glenn Howerton] they made it funny and I realized this could actually be a sitcom. But the truth is I never had any aspirations to get into comedy writing at all.”
Writer/actor Rob McElhenny on the initial concept for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

The following exchange from Scriptnotes podcast #299 lasts less than a minute, but it belongs in the Scriptnotes hall-of-fame. And it’s the drum I’ve been beating in the 9+ years of writing this blog. And a classic example of “do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Screenwriter Dana Fox: What was your trajectory to get you where you are right now?

Rob McElhenny : Well, mostly desperation. I was working in every bar and restaurant in New York City and I was just acting—or I was auditioning, and not getting any jobs, and complaining about every script that I read. So I was encouraged by my agent to stop bitching and write something for myself. I got the Syd Field screenwriting books, and William Goldman [Adventures in the Screen Trade] and just tried to understand [the basic principles of writing]. The first thing I wrote was not a comedy at all, it was really super dark. Really dark because that was a time in my life when I was very dark. 

That script got optioned and led to Rob working with Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) for six months. And while had to be an incredible opportunity itself, took Rob further into the deep forest as the project fell apart and ultimately didn’t get made. Rob stopped writing and decided it was time to leave New York.

Rob McElhenny (con’t): I moved out to Los Angeles and I decided to write again. I said I want to write something very simple so I don’t have to give it to somebody else. I want to go shoot it myself. So I wrote a little short film that was very dark but I brought it to my friends Glenn and Charlie and they thought it was funny so I just hitched my wagon to those two and held on for dear life. 

I didn’t really know anything about filmmaking, but I didn’t know anything about writing I just got all the books and watched as many movies as I possibly could. And so I just went to Best Buy—I didn’t have any money, but I got one of their credit cards with the high interest rates and I bought a prosumer camera and I got Final Cut [editing software] and learned how to cut and we shot it and I cut it together—and it was terrible. Like terrible, terrible. But I realized it was terrible and I re-wrote it and I shot it again. That was also terrible. And then we shot maybe three or four iterations and then I realized, wait, maybe this isn’t so bad. 

It not only wasn’t so bad, but it was so good that it paved the way to co-creating It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (with Glenn Howerton) which is now in its 12th season, and if it continues through its contract will end up being the longest running live action narrative TV program in the history of television. (Surpassing The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriest which ran for 14 seasons.)

Scott W. Smith

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When Emmy-winner Stephen J. Cannell died in 2010 his IMDB credits were extensive. I can’t image many others who wrote 450 TV episodes or produced more than 1,500 episodes. But there’s really no secret to how he did it—it’s basic math. He began his days at 3:30 AM:

“You know, when you say, ‘He created 42 primetime television series—how’d he do that?’ Well, you’d be surprised at what you can do if you get up and write for five hours a day everyday for 35 years.”
Stephen J. Cannell
Script magazine interview with Ray Morton

How did he get into that position where he was getting paid well to write for five hours? Again no secret—more basic math.

After Cannell graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Oregon he worked for his father. After work he went home and wrote for five hours every night. And he did that for more than five years without seeing anything he wrote get produced.

“I was like a machine. I swear I had a stack of material you could sit on.”
Stephen J. Cannell

That’s a great image to leave you with today. I’m not sure how big that stack of paper was, but if you measure the height of a 100 page stack of paper and multiple it by the height of an average chair you’ll come up with a pretty accurate number. Basic math.

P.S. And Cannell’s IMDB credit list continues to grow after his death. Most recently he was credited for the 2012 movie version of 21 Jump Street and the 2014 sequel 22 Jump Street because he was co-creator of the original TV series starring Johnny Depp.

Scott W. Smith 

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“With film you are closing doors. You’re telling a two-hour story, and you’re closing doors. With television you’re opening as many as you possibly can to leave yourself avenues for five or six years of storytelling.”
Film & TV Writer/Producer  Melissa Rosenberg (Twilight, Dexter)
Filmmaker magazine interview with Alix Lambert

TV is almost as different from film as the theater is from film, or a novel is from film. Story being told on the big screen is inside of 3 hours, and a story [like Breaking Bad] being told on the television screen is up to 100 hours so the two are entirely different mediums.”
Robert McKee, London Screenwriters Festival interview 

How do you know if your story idea is a feature film idea or a TV idea?

Here are ten ways I’ve gleaned from various sources (listed below) that can assist you in knowing if you have an idea that is more film or Tv (broadcast/cable/other) friendly. This is not an exhaustive list, or a definitive one—and there are always crossovers and exceptions —but this gives you a pretty good track to run on.

1. Movie Moment vs. Slice of Life
Matt Damon getting stuck on Mars in The Martian is a movie moment.  A once in a life time event. If that same character returned to earth safely and opened a bar, that’s a more television friendly slice of life. Kind of like Sam (Ted Danson) the ex-baseball player/bar owner in Cheers.

“What is the story of Cheers? It’s the story of people who show up at a bar where they find camaraderie in a way they don’t anywhere else. There’s nothing about that that suggests movie.”
Craig Mazin

Another way to look at it is ordinary vs. extraordinary. Much television takes place in  ordinary worlds where place is important. And usually that place, that world, is a home/apartment or a work place that we return to again and again. It’s the bar in Cheers, the advertising offices in Mad Men, the living room in Seinfeld and  All in the Family. 
2. Status Quo vs. Transformational
In TV Status Quo is god. The focus in movies tends to be life-changing, whereas Tv is life-living. Tony Danza’s character in TAXI wants to be a champion boxer, but in one episode he gets a fluke shot to fight the champ. If he wins that fight he’ll quit his job and make his living boxing. But he loses and goes back to his job as a TAXI driver. The movie version of that concept is Rocky—who also doesn’t beat the champ, but the direction of his life is forever changed and transformed as he goes from being a debt collector for a loan shark to (in sequels) a champion boxer.

“Characters rarely develop on TV. Generally, TV characters don’t change. Their relationships with others change, and we learn new things about them. They may change jobs. But they don’t change who they are. This is changing as television gets more sophisticated and storytelling gets more linear. But it is still fundamentally true.”
Alex Epstein in Crafty TV Writing
*Note: Epstein’s book was published in 2006, two years before Breaking Bad began airing. Part of what made Walter White such a dynamic (and unusual character) was he not only changed—he changed for the worse. An audiences still cared. Epstein was right on both accounts; Tv is changing, and it’s still fundamentally true that TV characters don’t change —especially network programs.

3.  Visual vs Verbal
While the opening of Social Network is over five minutes of two characters talking that is unusual in movies. Movies like The Revenant could be understood with the sound off. Television is more like theater where much more is communicated verbally. Sometime to save time and money there are expositional dumps of information.

Tony Soprano talking to his shrink is a good example of verbal writing. I find that there are more expositional dumps on television than in movies. (Spots where characters explain what’s going on.)

4. 2 Hours vs. 100 Hours
Sure some movies have a run time over over 3 hours but the majority are under two hours. Specials aside, television programs tend to only have run times of half and hour to an hour per episode, but the total running time is only limited to how many episodes run each year, and how many years the show runs. Could be just one season, five years, ten years— or even 25+ years like The Simpsons.  

 5. Big vs. Small
This is covered in so many areas; shooting days, budget, big named actors, etc.. The most I’ve paid to watch a single movie is $16.50, but I can watch TV 24 hours a day for free with a rabbit ears antenna.

6. Many Characters vs. Fewer Characters
“If you have a bunch of characters in your world, that’s probably television. If you have a very small number of characters, that is more likely a feature.”
John August

TV shows often revolve around families—even if they are slightly dysfunctional. And sometimes the people at work are surrogate families. Movies often feature orphan characters. Men and women against the system. Again Matt Damon in The Martin is a good example of a movie character cut off from the world. Movie characters often resolve their issues, and overcome great odds—but they often pay a deep price in doing so.

7. Aspirational vs. Heightened Reality 
The way life verses the way you want life to be. Traditional network television pays the bills by selling things. It has commercial breaks to sell cars, shampoo, beer, and a better life. But the commercials aren’t the only thing selling something—many of the shows themselves are selling an aspirational version of life.

as-puhrey-shuh-nlaimed at or appealing to people who want to attain a higher social position or standard of living.

Fitness gurus consider beer “liquid bread,” but in beer commercials, beer makes you slender, beautiful and happy. Driving an Audi also apparently makes you slender, beautiful and happy. In fact, Doritos, Close-up toothpaste, Nike shoes also make you slender, beautiful and happy.

“Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car.”
Don Draper in Mad Men

TV shows (especially network programs) lean towards an aspirational life where families neatly resolve their problems in 30 minutes, crimes are neatly solved within an hour, and just like in Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Movies (and increasing cable TV) reflect a fallen world. Sometimes a dystopia. And when they’re not doing that they are saving the world, playing in the championship game, or some other version of heightened reality.

8. Open Ended vs. Closed Ended
Being stuck on an island gives us a good example of how film and television handle the situation. On Gilligan’s Island there are seven people stranded on an island after a boating accident and they must learn to live together. Their conflict with each other is more the point of the show than actually getting off the island.

On the other hand, the major dramatic question of Cast Away is will Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) survive being marooned on an island. When he’s finally rescued and makes it back home he finds that everything is different—including himself.  The movie moment version of his life is over. The circle is complete. (Even if technically in the case of Cast Away the closed ending is a bit open ended as we don’t know where Nolan is heading next. But we do know that chapter of his life is over.)

9 . Writing Alone vs. Writing Rooms
According to Larry Brody in his book Television Writing from the Inside Out, writers have been gathering in writers rooms since not only the early days of television, but back  when Bob Hope and Jack Benny had radio programs. For the most part, that is a tradition that survives to this day.  Writing for features is often a one or two person job.

10. Opportunity vs. Opportunity++
There are a lot more paid writing gigs in television than in feature films, and then when you dump in the other digital/online storytelling opportunities (that look more like TV than theatrical films) so it’s worth exploring those options and trends for your story ideas.

Closing fighting words:
“I think right now television is the best that it’s ever been and I think that it’s the worst that film has ever been – in the 50 years that I’ve been doing it, it’s the worst.”
Dustin Hoffman
Independent interview, 2015

Update 4/19/16: Check out Stephanie Palmer’s post The Best TV Books.

Books: 
Crafty TV Writing, Alex Epstein
Elephant Bucks, Sheldon Bull
Television Writing from the Inside Out, Larry Brody
The TV Writer’s Workbook, Ellen Sandler
TVTropes
You’re Lucky You’re Funny, Phil Rosenthal

Websites, Podcasts & Blogs:
…by Ken Levine, The World As Seen by a TV Comedy Writer
Ellen Sandler’s Creative Approach to television Scripts
TV Writer
ONTHEPAHE with Pilar Alessandra
Scriptnotes episode 218

Scott W. Smith

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