Thursday, March 27, 2008

Depth.


Anybody else catch MISS GUIDED? I saw the pilot and was underwhelmed - I don't think it will last more that a season. I do find Judy Greer (who will always be Kitty from ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT to me) amusing and endearing, but the show is a little too silly for my taste. I'm not sure if the show is really ABOUT anything on a deeper level. MISS GUIDED (I have lost the ability to type titles without capitalizing, sorry) reminds me of a sitcom called TEACHERS that aired a few years ago...remember? Nope, neither does anyone else. But both shows shared what I think is a fundamental problem: They both are about teachers and take place at schools, but do not develop students as characters in any meaningful way. What are teachers without students? Shouldn't these interactions be the kinds of things that drive them? My mother is a teacher, and though she deals with plenty of teacher- and administration-related problems, the bulk of her career is about students. On a similar note, ARRESTED creator Mitch Hurwitz also wrote a pilot about teachers called SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP that is set up at Fox. It also doesn't really feature a whole lot of students...but it's much more edgy and bizzare than TEACHERS and MISS GUIDED (and it's going to be animated) so I'm reserving judgment. According to the Hollywood Reporter:

March 12, 2008 - It's another foreign format adaptation for Fox as the network has ordered a table read of "Sit Down, Shut Up," an animated comedy from Emmy winner Mitch Hurwitz based on the live-action Australian series of the same name. If the table read goes well, the project will be ordered straight to series, bypassing the months-long, expensive process of producing a presentation. "Sit Down" focuses on the lives of seven staff members at a high school in a small northeastern fishing town who are preoccupied with their own needs and agendas, which means the students always come second.

So I guess the whole point is that the students fade to the background. But doesn't that seem problematic to you?

Anyway. I saw Jason Katims speak at the Writers Guild on Tuesday as part of the Anatomy of a Script series. The $50 non-member ticket price was a bit hefty, but I thought it would be worth seeing the showrunner of Friday Night Lights, one of my very favorite shows of all time. Sometimes the talk wandered away from the topic...but Jason had some very interesting insights. One thing I really responded to was the idea that you shouldn't be concerned with things like act breaks (and his non-cliffhanger approach is unique but in my opinion, successful) as much as you should be thinking about DEEPENING the characters and plots over the course of the episode. Unraveling. Digging through the layers to figure out what it is all about. He also discussed taking scenes and "messing them up" - thinking about how what your characters want and do might not exactly follow your practical purpose for the scene.

And as for the murder plot...Jason just wanted to give the fantastic Jesse Plemons some tough dramatic material. He was fulfilling a bit of his own geek fantasy. He said, "What would Landry have to do to get Tyra? He'd have to murder someone...I'm only half kidding." Along with many fans, I appreciate this sentiment but think the choice was not entirely successful...but the show has moved on and so have I.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Dance Party Friday

This would never happen in LA. Not because we lack silly newscasters or confidently bad dancers, but because there is always traffic to report.



Saw Jason Katims speak at the WGA tonight...more on that later, when I don't feel like I definitely have strep throat or a double ear infection (or both).

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Crises

Ugh, I am stressing out about the stupidest things. Like, after an update of my (night)life pictures on facebook, I just realized that I do not have a neck. Seriously, head and shoulders, and that's it. Do I need to start wearing ridiculously plunging v-necks? Cease all weight-lifting involving the shoulders? Constantly gaze upward? Employ a three-pronged attack involving all of these? Honestly, I don't know what to do.

I am also reading Billion Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved DAWSON'S CREEK and Other Adventures in TV Writing by Jeffrey Stepakoff. So far, it is more or less a memoir about his journey to becoming a TV writer. I enjoy it, and relate to many of his anecdotes...except for the part where he meets John Wells at a college alumni event, sends him scripts, gets meetings with agents who want to represent him, and makes a ton of money writing for TV while still in his mid twenties. Arrrrgh sometimes I feel so far away from this. I know the only cure is to just keep writing so I will have scripts to show my John Wells-equivalent after I finish my year on the agency desk... but I am never in the mood to write, I am constantly thinking all of my stuff is crap and that no draft will be final. And that I am stupid to think I can possibly make it in a business that is getting more elite with the production of fewer pilots and the replacing of scripted fare with shows about Better Dads and Smarter 5th Graders. And that I am a horrible person for moving 3,000 miles away from my family and then constantly asking them for money so I can watch cable and eat Kashi bars. And then suddenly my crisis becomes less about what the hell to do with Celia on page 29 and more about the doubts I have about my life and "career" and myself in general.

But maybe this is what I'm supposed to be doing? Tortured artist and whatnot? It would just be great if I could crank out some quality scripts in the meantime.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Advice from a TV Lit Agent

Today we had an assistants meeting where the co-head of our TV Lit dept opened up the floor for questions and provided a lot of good insight. Someone was brave enough to ask her advice about pursuing a writing career. And here's what she said:

Don't diversify. It may seem like a great idea to have 7 really different specs, but she recommends that you only have 2 or 3. If she sees someone with 7, she wonders what happened with the first 6 - what was wrong with them? She also recommends to write from personal experience. She would love to sign more writers who have been doctors, lawyers or cops. Whatever your experience is, write about it - it will make your writing unique and authentic.

And in general, she recommends that you act like you're hot shit and own the place - but be able to back up everything you do and say with knowledge of everything going on in your field - and at least some basic knowledge of other fields (i.e. features if you're in TV, talent if you're in lit, etc.). She also warns that you'd better get a kick out of this stuff - or it won't be worth it.

As for yesterday's promise, thinking like a talent agent:

ACTORS very much affect whether projects get made. If there's a spec by a nobody writer and Brad Pitt decides he wants to attach himself, that movie is going to be made asap (hot rush!). So - as a writer, you should be thinking about how you're going to get people like Brad Pitt to want to be in your stuff. You need to provide a challenging role for the actor...something they can really sink their teeth into. There needs to be the scene that will clinch the Oscar nomination. (A writer's assistant friend of mine says he hears execs constantly talk about the "Holy Shit Moment.") There's a saying that the formula to a feature is taking your character, throwing them up into a tree and seeing how they get down. You have to really throw your character into an intense conflict, push them to their limits. What would make your character have a nervous breakdown? Slap somebody? Cry? Change the world?

As agents read scripts, they are thinking - what studio will make this? who will produce and direct it? who will star in it? If you plan to work within the hollywood system, you'd better be thinking of those things too. On a more practical level - give your characters good descriptions. And give them ages or age ranges - because if you don't, the intern or assistant writing the character breakdown will MAKE IT UP. Hey, we gotta know whose headshots and resumes to send.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How (Not) to Get an Agent

I am glad I work at an agency. There, I said it. Honestly, it's a great learning experience, for anyone who wants to be involved in the industry. If you're going to be a successful writer, director, producer, studio exec, etc., then you're going to have to work with agencies at some point in your career. And now I know things that seem really obvious..but a lot of people don't know. For instance...how do you get an agent?

Do not send query letters or scripts to Big Five (or Next Five) agencies. Yes, there are small agencies that will accept them...but even then you'll probably waste a lot of time. Where I work is a Next Five (my term)...but like the biggies, we do not accept any unsolicited materials. When I get this stuff, I am required to put it in an interoffice envelope and send it to my pal Brian in Business Affairs so that he can send it back to you with a rejection letter he prints out from a template. It doesn't matter if your script won eight competitions or is this amazingly original Jaws-meets-Casablanca-in-Space masterpiece. It's policy.

Do not call us asking if you can send stuff. If you don't know the name of an agent, you won't even get past reception. If you do happen to find an agent's name from studiosystem or the hollywood representation directory or something, you will get to their assistant, who will tell you the same thing: we do not accept any unsolicited materials. In a way it makes me sad to close the door in your face - since I have the same aspirations you do - but this is not how it works. And don't lie to me and say you're thisclose to selling it to a network and you just need someone to make the deal. If that's true, and the person you're selling to is legitimate, then s/he will know an agent to recommend you to. Also don't argue with me about how you're a professional journalist with an MFA from USC. You think I'm an idiot who wants to roll calls my entire life? I don't care.
So how does it work? KNOW SOMEONE. Know a studio exec or a writer or someone's girlfriend or dogwalker or whomever who can recommend you to an agent. Then maybe they will read you (or get their assistant to read you at least). Everybody's always looking for good material; once they've cracked their way inside, great unrepped writers do not remain unrepped for long.

But, you say, I don't know anyone. Well, start meeting them the way the rest of us are doing it: answering their phones.

Tomorrow: why being around talent agents can make you a better writer.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Setting the mood

Met some writers for a drink last week...actually, it was a writing team of which one member works his day job in Boston with my good friend from college. Weird connection, but she gave him my email and we've been chatting and he came to LA for a meeting. He's a Legitimate Writer with an agent and a film that's been at Sundance and a screenplay that John Carpenter is directing. Maybe we can help each other out somehow. And maybe it's weird to go meet three guys you've never met in a weird little bar on Sepulveda, but I'm continuing to keep the spirit of You-Never-Know-Who-Might-Help-Your-Career. (Slash be a cool person or future character.)

Anyway, we were discussing WHERE we write. One of them said he needed to be in a conference room. (How inconvenient, I suggested, since most LA apartments don't come equipped with them.) Another likes Starbucks. I tend to just write in my house because of convenience and cost...but sometimes it can be difficult. If I am sitting in my living room, the TV is generally on - and I generally don't get much done. In my room, my desk is in a corner facing a wall, and usually I pile clothes on top of it anyway. That leaves the kitchen table...usually where my cat plays with all the mail.

So I am trying something new - writing during my lunch hour. (Actually, hour and a half. Weird, I know.) I am bringing my laptop, which probably seems silly, but my work computer only has final draft viewer. But it seemed to work the other day. I am lucky to work in a beautiful building with rich woodwork and recessed lighting and wooden desks and huge colonial-style windows. Plus there's all the fountains and columns and perfectly pruned gardens - and the reliable sunshine of southern California. Maybe I'm superficial, but working in a place that aesthetically pleasing really does make a difference to me.

So I put on some music and cranked out a couple scenes. Then this real scene happened (it just seems easier to write it this way):


Coworker (who often works through lunch): What are you listening to?
Me: Broken Social Scene. I can turn it off if it bothers you.
Coworker: How could anybody be bothered by Broken Social Scene?
Me: Yeah I know, it's pretty background-y.
Coworker: Have you ever listened to Mew?
Me: Oh, no. I'll have to check them out.
Coworker: What about Explosions in the Sky?
Me: No...
Coworker: You know, Friday Night Lights...all those guitars and stuff.
Me: Oh, wow. It didn't even occur to me that a band did their soundtrack...I'm going to start listening to them.
Coworker: Yeah, it's definitely inspiring. Perfect for a Domestic Heartland Epic.
Me: Watch, it's going to change my life. I'm going to start cranking out a script a week or something.

(p.s. I can't help but love the sound of Untitled Domestic Heartland Epic.)

So where do you write? What do you listen to?

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Clear Eyes Full Hearts STILL Can't Lose



FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS WILL GET A THIRD SEASON! NBC and DirectTV made a deal or something weird...I don't know, but it's coming back - and that makes me very happy. It was just starting to get good again when season two ended.

Things on the desk are pretty good. It was kind of a long week, and there are some weird things going on with HR, people getting fired, emails titled Punctuality is the Key to Success. Weird stuff. Heard the phrase "family comedy" a few dozen more times. And then there was the moment when my 65 year-old boss walked in and said, "It's another shitty day in paradise. It's hard out there for a pimp." What exactly does one say to that?


I've also been getting into In Treatment when it's replayed on the weekends on HBO. It's hard to keep up with the daily schedule (there are different therapy patients each night of the week), but the episodes are simple so you can kinda jump in whenever and enjoy them. It can be visually static sometimes since each ep is basically a half-hour of people sitting on couches, but the writing and acting are so compelling that I don't really care. It feels a bit like watching a really good play. I think what works so well is that while many shows/films take a while to get to the heart of what is really bothering/motivating the characters, In Treatment gets to the point immediately, in therapy sessions.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Finally in the assistant world

I was hesistant to write about this based on my last experience getting a desk, but I GOT A DESK! Today was my third official day on my own without my predacessor, so I think it's fairly official now. I'm working for a senior MP Lit agent. I did want TV originally, but this guy is really easygoing and we get along well (and I strongly believe this is the key to doing your year at the agency without killing yourself). Plus, he worked as a TV agent for 30 years so I'm sure he has plenty of contacts there. So far so good...I will give you plenty of vague, sketchy versions of all the juicy things I hear while listening to phone calls, like one development exec saying "WE ARE ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS LOOKING FOR FAMILY COMEDIES."

Otherwise...I saw the Other Boleyn Girl and loved it. Great complex character work, that Peter Morgan. I also saw 21 which wasn't great or terrible...really kind of forgettable. It's such a small movie, I'm not really sure why it stuck out to anyone as a movie to make. I suppose Kevin Spacey really liked the idea of being both a mentor and an antagonist, which was probably the movie's best asset.