Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Shadows and Blog

Well, TeeVee won't have us to kick around this season!

The term "staffing season" needs to be retired. We need to think of a new phrase that will accurately depict what happens each spring when shows are renewed or cancelled and new shows are picked up for fall and midseason. Because calling it "staffing" or a "season" isn't working anymore. We had a few meetings but the season is pretty uninspiring, and the level of crazy is already through the roof. What we learned this staffing period -- minute? -- is that resumes carry more weight than anything else. If I was hiring based on resume, I wouldn't hire us, either. What's interesting is, we are apparently being blamed for the suckage of the shows on our resume, yet the creators of those shows keep getting more shows on the air. Obviously, that's massively stupid. But it's also impossible to overcome by just getting on one more crappy show that nobody's ever heard of.

We've sold five pilots and but for a miscalculation last year, we would've had one shot. That's where the love is, people -- original material. It's too easy to fall into the staffing whirlpool and just try and get on shows year after year. Yeah, you wind up with a big house (so I've heard) and financial security, but do you really think ANYBODY on those NBC shows is gonna be happy? There are extremely successful showrunners who are miserable because they haven't created a show yet, but they keep taking jobs running other peoples' shows. So this year, we're focusing on original material -- pilots, features, comics... you name it. Because being on shows hasn't made US financially secure, nor has it helped our reputation, even though these asshats are always happy with our work.

To show you the level of desperation that can happen during this time of the year, there's this guy.

Ouch, right? I think he left out something monumentally important -- although he proclaims himself to be a "passionate storyteller," he doesn't actually say he's a good writer. And judging by his list... well, I wouldn't necessarily think so. And I'll tell him why I wouldn't hire him -- the Yale thing. He just HAD to sneak that in there! I don't think there's anything special about people who go to Ivy League schools, aside from their parents' ginormous bank accounts. Many of the smartest and best writers I know didn't even finish college. It's all about the writing, not about how elitist you are because you went to Yale. I don't care where you went to school, or what degrees you have. I don't care if you went to film school or have an MFA in screenwriting. All that matters is the writing. And if you're going out for a show, not being crazy. This dude's got a touch of annoying. He should work on that.

That's the easy answer, and it's the one that all new writers need to know -- WRITE, people. At least know you can do THAT. Then you can deal with the political bullshit that is TeeVee and the film business. I wish it was all about the writing. Life would be a lot easier. But unfortunately, if you're already in the TeeVee whirlwind, it isn't. There are still executives and producers that like and can identify good writing, but when it comes to hiring writers for their shows, it's all about relationships and the resume. If you're just breaking in at the lower levels, it's going to be about how talented you are (I think that still holds true). But if you are at midlevel, shoot yourself if you have a crappy resume. Go ahead. Pick up the gun, aim it right at that smart, passionate storytelling head of yours. Pull the trigger.

It's difficult to blame showrunners for wanting to hire people they've worked with before. It's what I would do. And I hope it's what my friends will do when they get their own shows! That said, I feel completely let down by a few people I never thought would let me down. I'm sure those of you who know me can guess who one of those people is. But it just requires a mental adjustment -- you can only truly count on yourself in this business. No matter how pleased they are with your work or how perfect you are for their show, it's never a sure thing. It's still a bitter disappointment to learn that somebody you thought was a stand-up person -- different from all the assholes -- is just one of them.

When talking about TeeVee staffing, the work doesn't always speak for itself. Showrunners have become somewhat incapable of recognizing good writing unless the sample is almost exactly like their show. Why don't people know how to read scripts anymore? Have they become that conditioned to mediocre writing because of the crap shows they've been on? They'll say that they didn't love your material. When you hear that, don't take it to heart because what that really means is, "My show is a sci-fi kick-ass meditation on the nature of human existence, but you made me read a family drama. I have no idea if you can write for my show." The thing is, good writers can just fucking WRITE. Genre doesn't matter. Obviously writers are drawn to different genres, but that doesn't mean someone with a family drama sample can't write a ghost show. But these execs and showrunners have tried to boil this down to a formula, which is why procedural writers always get the procedural jobs, and writers from "Battlestar Galactica" will always get the genre jobs.

There's really only one way to deal with all of this -- fucking SHOW these people. Make them want you, then be unavailable.

We're gonna be eating a lot of Ramen this year until we sell something, but then it'll be OURS. We won't be dependent on a showrunner who's freaked out, angry and depressed. Life's too goddam short.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

RIP, Gilmores

Super-human TeeVee critic Brian Lowry wrote an interesting defense of critics. It's curious that entertainment critics find it necessary to continue defending their jobs. It's beginning to come off as more than mere "you just don't understand what we do" bullshit, though. It sounds defensive.

Let's dive in:
>These days, however, critics are grateful even when presented as objects of derision, amid a run of review-proof projects that have inspired some to label us irrelevant at best and at worst obsolete.<

Now, Brian. You can't be rendered obsolete if you were never relevant to begin with.

>Look no further than the tepid critical response to "Spider-Man 3," which of course did nothing to blunt its staggering debut. In that context, it's flattering people care enough to take umbrage when so much of what succeeds proves impervious to critics' disapproval.

Then again, even filmmakers normally lavished with praise -- such as "The Sopranos" creator David Chase -- often profess to avoid the corrosive, corrupting influence of media analysis.

"I try not to read that stuff, as much as I can," Chase says in the current Written By, the Writers Guild's magazine. "I try not to read reviews." (Given the grumbling about the latest batch of "Sopranos" episodes, this approach sounds increasingly prudent.)<

Oh, ha ha, Brian! Hardy har! Since TeeVee critics aren't particularly, how shall I put this... creatively inclined, I understand the confusion. See, any good writer has to have a healthy dose of self-criticism. You have to be able to step back from your work with a critical eye. We all get too inside our own heads. We all fall in love with elements of our writing that aren't necessarily going to work. We frequently have to kill our children. But this is only one component of the craft of writing. There is no OTHER component in criticism. The job of a critic is to criticize. It's to analyze what the writer has written and hopefully (but not usually), understand the writer's role in the creative process. While there are some decent movie critics out there, there are NO decent TeeVee critics because these folks almost purposefully ignore the history of the medium.

If a critic REALLY thinks his opinion should be taken as more than simply one man's opinion, well.. that's unfortunate. Because TeeVee critics aren't insightful. They all sound like frustrated TeeVee writers. The ego of a TeeVee critic is unparalleled. I would really love to be able to point to one and go, "Now THERE'S someone who's got a handle on the medium, someone whose opinion I may not always agree with, but will always respect." Sadly, however... I haven't found that dude yet.

This is a roundabout way to say that the reasons the TeeVee critic imagines for why a writer doesn't read criticism, aren't the real reasons. See, TeeVee criticism isn't constructive. It's angry, it's ignorant, and it's gleeful when a critic hates something. TeeVee critics don't show a clear understanding of how the world of TeeVee works. Worse than that, they're TeeVee critics -- that means that on SOME level, their job consists of watching TeeVee shows, correct? Then why does it take them so goddam long to hop on a show's bandwagon? It took almost the first season of Buffy for the critics to blink their sleepy little eyes and go, "This WB network... you mean that's not on cable?" It's easy as shit to be a TeeVee critic. You aren't forced to seek out anything out of the mainstream. There must be a little packet that all TeeVee critics collect that tells them which shows they'll focus on and what they're supposed to think. Hell, that's what the TCA is for. It's complete bullshit, and the TeeVee critics actually think they're offering their own opinion and not the opinion of whichever corporation has just fed them crab cake arugula panini with truffle oil and a white balsamic vinaigrette while introducing them to the charming star of their latest procedural opus. I mean, SERIOUSLY.

>Small wonder critics relish any indication that our work has struck a nerve -- whether the feedback comes via protests about our heartlessness or producers indulging in little revenge fantasies.<

Think about why that is, Brian. Try to use that critical faculty you're supposed to use in your job.

>The truth is people seldom complain, although email does allow for the occasional knee-jerk "You killed Kenny! You bastard!" response. A particular favorite came last season from a producer advancing the "Those who can't do, review" theory, who wrote, "I'm asking this question in all seriousness: Did you actually aspire to be a television critic as a young man, or did you stumble upon it to pay the bills? The reason I ask is because your review of our show seemed vindictive for no particular reason, and it naturally led me to assume that you are frustrated about failures outside of your current position." (By the way, the series got canceled.)<

See? Gleeful. TeeVee critics LOATHE TeeVee writers, yet they also yearn to BE them, so you'll see them trailing after the flavor of the month, whether it be Chris Carter, Joss Whedon, Rob Thomas or Tim Kring, desperately trying to be accepted into that inner circle. You know what would be nice? If we drew a line across town. TeeVee critics, y'all stay over there. You write your little stories, and we'll write ours. And nary the twain shall meet.

If you Gentle Readers are skimming the comments, you'll see that pisher is, once again, accusing me of all kinds of strange things. He is primarily thrilled that since his arrival on these shores, I've apparently made him the focus of my blog. Which isn't quite true. I thought his erroneous comparison of The Riches and Death Proof was a really good example of how most people view writing, which is why I commented on it. So here's the thing. I will continue to publish pisher's comments, but replying to each exhaustive comment just so pisher can crow with glee is not why I started this blog. So fear not, Gentle Readers, there will be no more time suckage from pisher. You're posting in a vacuum, my friend. This is my blog. I make the rules.

Erin lamented the cancellation of Gilmore Girls. And indeed, there should be some lament. Gilmore Girls was on for seven years and for much of those seven years, it was consistently one of the best written shows on TeeVee. Most people just go, "Oh, sure, it had all that DIALOGUE." But that's window dressing. What made the show work were the characters, and in spite of the rapid-fire witty banter, the subtlety. Amy Sherman-Palladino is a unique voice on TeeVee. This was borne out when she left at the end of season six. Some of the writers focused too much on the dialogue and not enough on the subtlety of character, the balancing act with Lorelai's parents, for example. And what's really sad about that is, these are writers on the show! And they should know this. But they didn't. This was a simple show made complex because Amy Sherman-Palladino recognizes that relationship issues are fluid and while they can be dampened, they can't be solved as easily as they are on other shows. And this can be boiled down to a perfect example from the show. When Rory dropped out of Yale and moved in with the Gilmores, a furious Lorelai uses a parable about a frog and a scorpion to illustrate why Emily is the way she is. It's a terrific and perfect story, and Lorelai's furious anger comes the next episode after one of the loveliest scenes in the series, when Lorelai goes to her parents for help. There aren't many shows that can succesfully juxtapose the warm, supportive side with its opposite. But here's why that works -- because the characters believe it. When you write an evil character, you don't write him as evil. An evil character is evil because of how he's viewed by other characters, or by society. But he has reasons for what he does. There are a lot of writers who don't get this. Emily Gilmore could be infuriating and surprising from one moment to the next. I will miss the Gilmores greatly.

Veronica Mars also ended up on Cancellation Walk but it didn't get the send-off the Gilmore Girls got. Nope, no closure for Ms. Mars! I do wish that the story they used as a cliffhanger to a now sadly nonexistent season had been the story this year. The show really seemed to lose its sparkle and it's a shame that it had to wind down the way it did.

I'm going to do another post about staffing season, but here's the short version -- it's not like it used to be. People I thought I could count on have disappointed me, and I am no longer interested in giving people the benefit of the doubt. I would say that they know who they are, but they aren't reading the blog. Which will turn out to be a good thing for the next post...

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Diary of a Mad Blogger

Got a little busy preparing for a meeting on a show that has been on for four years. Lotsa episodes to watch and forums to read. But thank Christ for the internets. It used to be impossible to fully prepare for a meeting before you could find episode guides and, well, episodes. And Bittorrent? You and me, buddy. All the way.

I wanted to dive into some comments first because pisher, in the way only he can, posted something silly. He goes:

>I'd certainly call Death Proof the least accomplished (and least ambitious) Tarantino movie to date, but I thought it was damned entertaining--the talky parts as much as the vroom-vroomy/crashy parts. Your primary complaint, I take it, other than the lack of sufficient action (everybody says that) is that the female characters didn't talk like real women?

You mean the way the Travellers in The Riches don't talk like real Travellers, as you know damned well they don't?<

That's vintage pisher, folks!! One has nothing to do with the other. But before we go there, let me just say how remarkable it is that SO MANY PEOPLE know EXACTLY how travellers talk and act. That's truly amazing! I always love when people get cranky because the research isn't precise and exact. Um. It's easy to get bogged down in reality and research. I've done it myself. But it can also get stifling and you have to know when to stop or it will ruin your show. I mean, a dude can't really squeeze into an air-conditioning vent but I didn't hear you yelling about THAT. The FBI doesn't actually investigate this sort of thing, but you remained quiet. Because it was engrossing and well written. Get it? Whether or not the traveller culture is properly represented is irrelevant in this discussion. Because on The Riches, the characters DO talk like people -- well drawn, fleshed out, unique people.

In Death Proof, the characters do NOT talk like people. But primarily, the female characters in Death Proof don't talk like women. At all. And it's not the tough talk, or the movie references. There are little subtleties that Quentin just blows past because God forbid he should actually listen to a woman TALK, right?The scene in the car, when Rosario Dawson is talking about the director who cheated on her -- her friends totally defend the guy for sleeping with someone else because Rosario didn't sleep with him. That's a GUY conversation. Girlfriends would NEVER do that. And then when she wants to go with them in the car and Zoe tells her that she can't because she's got a kid -- that's what a GUY would say, just before he got smacked upside the head.

This may not seem like a big deal to you, which doesn't surprise me. And there are moments in well-written pieces that you can shine a bit because the writing is so good. But it isn't in Death Proof. Look, I'm a HUGE Reservoir Dogs fan. I adore it. And he managed to write a strong female character in Jackie Brown. But there's a reason for that -- Jackie Brown was a person first, and a woman second. In Death Proof, Quentin wanted to write gurls. He forgot to create PEOPLE. And I fucking HATE that kind of writing. Also, Death Proof isn't a grindhouse movie. At all. So there's that.

>Anyway, granting all this, how true to life then do you have to be when you're doing an homage to exploitation films running on a double bill with a zombie horror film about women with machine gun legs, that features a guy deliberately running a tricked-out car head-on into another car at high speed as a means of getting away with murder, that same guy then running afoul of two stuntwomen and a hairdresser who are playing a game called "Ship's Mast" that involves hanging by two belts from the hood of a vintage automobile travelling at high velocity?<

You'd better create characters, my friend. And cutting something that sort of slack because it's exploitation anyway is stupid. Why shouldn't everything be well written? Why would you make a decision to set the bar lower? It is NOT easier to just shit something out on the page. Bad writing takes as long as good writing -- sometimes even longer.

>I don't blame you for finding the dialogue inauthentic. There are no women who talk like that. There are no MEN who talk like that. It's only meant to be 'authentic' to the Quentin-verse. Mr. Tarantino and neorealism have never been on the best of terms. He's always preferred Leone and Argento to DeSica and Rossellini. <

Okay. So what you're saying is, there are no authentic characters in Once Upon A Time In The West? Seriously?

>You have probably read his comments about Kill Bill--that he has this vision that all the movies he loves (including his own) take place in some kind of wacked out dimension where all exploitation films really happen, and a character can find herself in a martial arts film one moment, and a spaghetti western the next. <

Sure. Which is great. But ironically, what you're saying is the opposite of the truth. If you create a "wacked out dimension" then you had better populate it with believable, dimensional characters. Your fallacy is completely wrong here. And speaking of Kill Bill, which I mostly like, it has some of the same issues with female characters. I don't understand why writers -- and women do this with female characters, too, although it's mostly men -- can't just create CHARACTERS. PEOPLE. How's about we start with that?

>So while I don't blame anyone for saying they don't like Death Proof, I must chide you for expecting realism from it. I mean, have you ever heard two hitmen talking about what a Big Mac is called in The Netherlands? You either dig it or you don't. I dug it. <

I explained above what realism I expect. And you giving it a free pass for its flaws is sloppy. But once again, you have this weird ability to use as an example, the completely wrong thing. While I haven't heard hitmen talking about Big Macs or TeeVee pilots, those discussions both illuminate character. WHICH IS THE POINT OF DIALOGUE. Sloppy, pisher. Very sloppy.

Man, I LOVE having my own blog!

The title of today's post refers to Diary Of A Mad Housewife. Most of you probably haven't seen it because for some retarded reason, it isn't on DVD. But it's playing at the Egyptian next Thursday, along with Play It As It Lays, which is ALSO not on video. I haven't seen it but it sounds GREAT. Both movies are directed and co-written by Frank Perry, who also directed The Swimmer (which IS on DVD -- see it. It's wonderful, and the transfer is gorgeous).

I was reminded of Diary Of A Mad Housewife last night, when I watched Family Portraits: A Trilogy Of America. Not since Cabin Fever have I wanted so much to strangle a filmmaker. This is supposed to be a shocking and meaningful film about how people can't connect unless it's through violence. Essentially, it's a trilogy of -- wait for it -- TERROR. Three stories of the American suburban nightmare. In the first film, the dude's a pedophile. His wife makes colorless food that she silently serves, pedophile dude stares at her, she goes whacko and cuts off her lips (don't ask), they have sex (because FINALLY, she's interesting to him), he goes at her (and himself) with the garden shears. And, scene. The second film is about a dude whose dad is a controlling psychopath. His wife makes colorless food that she silently serves, abused dude stares at her, then he ties up his wife and daughter and hacks them to bits with what is apparently the world's sharpest knife. And, scene. The third film is about an artist dude. His wife silently serves him colorless food. He stares at her. A girl who's lost her hands in apparently some violent fashion comes home to a silent, staring house. Then she goes to the artist dude, where she's all, "Buddy, I KNOW you cut off my hands" but in a silent, staring way. Then the artist dude goes out to the Midwestern equivalent of the moors and tries to dig up the bodies of all the women he's killed. Q.E.D. Somehow.

Here's where I have trouble with filmmaker Douglas Buck's premise. What we're seeing is NOT American suburbia, and to pretend otherwise is unfair to the audience. A film like this has no impact because the setting isn't grounded enough. The guy can't even create REAL suburbia! So the extremes don't resonate. But let's look at Mad Housewife. There are REAL extremes in this film, particularly with Richard Benjamin's character (you have to see him to believe him). But he can go all freaky because he begins in reality. We've all known a version of this guy. The movie is an exquisite portrayal of its time (the early 70s), when women were awakening from their housewife comas and their husbands were trying desperately to hold onto the status quo. The reason the movie still works, though, it because of the characters. The Swimmer, while slightly less successful because it builds to a surprise ending that you see coming for the entire film, nonetheless presents a surreal suburbia that grounds itself in reality through the main character (a superb Burt Lancaster). Buck can only dream of recreating this kind of magic. It's all about being able to IDENTIFY with a character, setting or situation. If the filmmaker is too interested in being taken seriously, he isn't going to be able to tell a story. And Buck is NOT capable of telling a story. Like Eli Roth, all he wants to do is shock because deep down, he knows he's a big old hack. And the fact that Peter Straub did the liner notes for the DVD makes me wonder about his sanity.

Let's face it -- it isn't hard to have a point of view on suburban American life. It's certainly something that can be shorthanded, which is great for storytelling. Little Children is a great modern example of that, and Strangers When We Meet, from the 60s, portrays characters we can still identify with. It's not fucking brain surgery, people! But when you get something like Family Portraits, or In The Bedroom, you know you're in the presence of pretension. And pretension doesn't make for entertaining, thought-provoking storytelling.

Anyway. Blech. Avoid Family Portraits, or don't come crying to me.

Dave talks about his myriad rewrites for the Lifetime movie. Yeah, notes can be helpful. But the execs seem to think that means that ALL notes can be helpful, until the end of time. Which we all know isn't true. It's probably the biggest stumbling block facing writers. How do you know when to put your foot down? And can you even do that? Because writers have ceded all power to the networks and studios. I'd sure love to get some of that back. And unfortunately, no Comic Con for me THIS year either. Until they fix the lodging situation, I'm not going to kill myself over it.

I know someone who will be breathing easier knowing I won't be there.

Heh.

np -- Every Move A Picture, Heart=Weapon. Sorta 80s, and it's growing on me. The first track, Mission Bell, is freaky -- it sounds JUST LIKE Stories For Boys. And that can't be an accident. Speaking of music, we wrote a new spec pilot that's about a rock star and her daughter and we did an iMix! So if you search the iMixes on iTunes for Eliza and Ruefrex, you should be able to find it.

Until next time, Gentle Readers.