Friday, October 08, 2010

How Do I Know You Can Write?

writing with blood

All writers know it's difficult convincing others that you can write. Every big name from Ernest Hemingway to Aaron Sorkin was repeatedly turned down at their beginnings, earning far more rejection slips than offers to option their material.

In later life, many authors of note wear those rejections as a badge of honor, proof that they prevailed and overcame their detractors, confirming the entertainment industry rule that "Nobody Knows Anything".

Most screenwriters will also not enjoy the breakout success of a first script. And even the writers of "Rocky" or "Thelma and Louise" eventually acknowledge that maybe they weren't really concocted in a week of frenzied creativity or preceded by a drawer full of stuff nobody else ever saw.

There are even writers who won Pulitzers, Tonys or Academy Awards who never sold another original piece. Many had lucrative careers rewriting and revising the work of others or by being rewritten or revised themselves. But no single line credit with their name on it ever reappeared.

A degree of success does not also guarantee a career.The membership rolls of every guild and union of scribes are littered with the names of those who captured lightning in a bottle only once or twice, renewing their memberships for decades thereafter without ever being hired again.

Some of that's just Life. Shit happens. The puck doesn't bounce your way. Scholars have spent lifetimes trying to understand how Harper Lee could write "To Kill A Mockingbird" and never pull anything of note out of her typewriter again.

Less erudite Canadian screenwriters sit in smoky bars, confused at why the incredible talents responsible for "Corner Gas" just haven't been as funny elsewhere.

Does some of the pressure to repeat and three-peat bring about self imposed failure? Perhaps.

But no writer who has achieved even minor success ever sits down at their laptop thinking they have to immediately swing for the fences. They know their craft and that there are steps they must go through to write the next one, many far more plodding and difficult than just stepping up to the plate and waving a hot bat around.

I've often wondered if it's not the writers but we who set their bar too high. Did Harper Lee read those initial reviews of her first novel and mutter, "Fuck, the only place you go from here is down! I better learn to live on my royalties."?

Does some comedic genius suddenly have to make his jokes work for the suits in the network boardroom long before they can be enriched by an actor's timing or presented within the warm familiarity of sets the audience will come to identify as the place where "Funny" can be found?

Maybe true greatness is measured by always being better or funnier than you were before. Although that seems an odd criteria to use in television where sameness is almost demanded and talented guys like David E. Kelley won't have to write about anything but gangs of oddball lawyers from Boston until it's time to drive him to the retirement home.

Or maybe, the inability of some writers to rediscover their muse is because of something else…

As difficult as it is for writers to convince others that they can write well, it is growing even more difficult for producers and showrunners to determine if they can write in the first place.

I can assure you beyond any reason to doubt that when a producer picks up a script, he wants it to be the best thing he's ever read. Because Producers hate to read. It really eats into all that time we could be spending pursuing starlets and separating dentists from their investment funds.

Or filling out forms if you happen to be a Canadian producer.

Not only that, but if the script is really good and I can get it made, I might never need to read another fucking script for the rest of my natural life. I'll either be sailing in the Caribbean or hiring minions to do my reading for me.

But if the producer is making a TV series or he's the showrunner in charge of one, he needs to know something more than how good the script is.

He needs to know how much of it the writer actually wrote.

And that is becoming almost impossible.

Not that it hasn't always been somewhat of a crap shoot.

Back in the day, as almost any former head writer or show producer prior to the coining of the term "showrunner" will tell you, a show's writer or story editors never took credit for a freelance writer's work.

For all the reasons detailed in Stephen J. Cannell's must see TV Archive videos you just didn't do it.

Call it professional courtesy, call it an awareness that the writer's work was usually less at fault than the capriciousness of networks and studios. Even if you had to sweat out a page one rewrite or even a completely new script less than 24 hours before the material was needed on the floor, you never put your name or somebody else's on it.

If the original freelancer wanted his own name removed, fine. But then he (and only he) got to stipulate what went under the "written by" credit. And he still got all the money and residual payments.

Somewhere else on this blog, I've told the story of attending a Gemini Awards ceremony where all five of the nominated TV Drama scripts had been written by either myself or a fellow showrunner. We shared a drink at the back wondering if whoever won would acknowledge either of us for helping them get up to the podium. We figured he or she wouldn't -- and we were right.

That night's winner gushed kudos to parents and a wonderful agent, who would later pressure us both to rehire his client. But there was no mention of who did the actual writing or even contributed to the apparent brilliance.

To be honest, I don't think either of us cared. The winner was a pretty good writer and could at least be counted on to deliver on time. I'm pretty sure one or both of us hired him again.

But gradually, his work dried up. I recall a network executive confiding his disappointment in a development deal which had faltered. "The guy's got a Gemini. I thought the script would be better."

I never told the exec who really wrote the award winning script. Its true provenance could never have been fully proven anyway. But that lack of proof is becoming the norm for those writing TV scripts today. And there are a number of reasons.

The first is the proliferation of writers rooms. You see photographs of the writing staffs of television series all over the place now. Gatherings of smiling folk still bleary-eyed from late nights writing, re-writing or trying to write their show.

They break both bread and stories together, some specialize in main plot or subplot or dialogue or punching up somebody else's dialogue. All of them espouse enormous respect for the skills the others bring to the table. Their showrunners appear on internet chat shows, extolling the virtues of "the team" and how everybody understands the core values of the concept and is pulling in the same direction.

I've had the experience of running writers rooms where scripts were discussed generally and then the writer was tossed back into his pit alone until a new draft emerged. And I've experienced rooms where pages were group written line by line. Nobody facing the gaping maw of the endlessly chewing machine cares how it gets fed. Whatever works best for the show is just fine.

But I've also had the experience of sending the writing staff off to do Jell-O shots with their Guild buddies on a Friday night, sharing tales of their ludicrous network notes while I sat down and wrote what we would be shooting Monday morning.

Because I'd hired people who weren't as good as their scripts said they were. Because I didn't fully know what they had actually contributed on their last series.

The sad reality is that I can't look at a script sample from your last show in an era of gang writing and know for certain that this is what you can do.

Any produced script has always contained elements the writer didn't conceive, the lines an actor extemporized, the scene the director added for the Executive producer's concubine, the third act turn gelded by the network. But usually you can find the original creative current winding its way around and through the impediments.

But now I read those scripts and wonder if this is the work of this writer or of a team that can't recreate something this good unless I hire all of them.

My determination of how a writer got to be where he is becomes further impeded when I try to look past the script and assess how or why he got his last gigs.

You always assume somebody was hired on merit. You know they might have bought drinks for somebody on the show, slept with the producer or maybe met her at a Sorority reunion and that's all part of the game. However they got hired, you assume they were assigned scripts and deserved singular credits on merit.

But you'd be wrong.

Networks, particularly in Canada, are well known for insisting that staffers be graduates of specific schools. Maybe that school has a valued reputation. Maybe it's where the network has plowed some money or been part of pre-vetting the candidates. Maybe there's something trendy about the place. Doesn't matter.

A network minion sees that institute on your CV and you're in.

In the same way that nobody who ever went to Harvard has ever been sued for medical malpractice, legal malfeasance or literary plaigarism, if you did time in Camp "X" you must be James Bond!

Similarly, it seems a lot of Canadian writers are still being hired based on the color of their skin and not the content of their character -- I mean, scripts.

And no, I'm not talking about all those white people on almost every cover of "Canadian Screenwriter".

According to representatives of the Writers Guild of Canada, they are regularly approached by producers seeking writers "of diversity" to fill out their staffs. In other words, a writer's abilities are of less importance than adding a little somethin' somethin' to the production.

Despite the fact that Clause A110 of the Independent Producer Agreement states:

"There shall be no discrimination against any Writer, Story Editor or Story Consultant because of race, ancestry, place of origin, creed, religion, gender, age, record of offenses (other than offenses related to copyright infringement), marital status, family status, disability, sexual orientation or political affiliation."

Despite all that, Guild staff still feel obligated to provide some producers with a short list of those who could be classified as "diverse".

To the Guild's credit, and the credit of other groups such as the National Screen Institute, they have worked hard to provide the tools and experience writers disadvantaged by the above classifications have never been able to acquire.

Maybe somebody needs to have a look at who's not getting into all those Harvard Film Schools the networks are financing up here.

The heart-breaking reason such diversity outreach is necessary is that any development executive (who's being honest) will tell you that ticking off a few "Diversity" boxes scores you big points with the CRTC and government funding agencies.

All that might have evolved with the best of intentions. But if you're a "diverse" writer who walks into my office, I look at your resume and have to wonder if you're this good or you're just the hot Asian chic somebody hired to make some bureaucrat at the Canadian Media Fund like them better.

The sad truth about Canadian show business is that while the vast majority of artists long ago stopped noticing that somebody's from the Rez, too many in the executive offices and government bureaucracies still won't help that aboriginal minority artist get anything made if it's about white people or the black immigrant experience because the logos they slap on those projects don't alleviate enough of their condescending liberal guilt.

Okay -- so enough of all that. How do I know you're somebody I want to hire on my next show?

Forget the script from your last show.

Forget the spec script. Even colored birds can mimic "Polly wants a cracker".

Don't tell me where you went to school or were hired to intern.

Show me what you wrote all on your own. Show me what comes from your heart. Show me how you see the world.

I don't care if your format margins are perfect. I can teach you that while I'm walking you to your office.

Just show me what you can do. If I'm smart enough to see it you've got the job.

If I'm not that smart, or I need you there to fulfill some other agenda -- you don't want to work for me.


Anonymous said...

I'm not a writer (I'm one of those former evil bureaucrats) but have many writer friends who live in the wrong part of the country (tax credits, you know), didn't sleep with the right exec, or don't wear the right shoes, and continue to hit their heads against the wall to get a break. Hell of a business - why do we stay?

Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

the glamour

Steve Urszenyi said...

Great post. As an older newbie trying to "break in," I am left with a vivid picture of the state of the industry here in Canada. It frightens me into not quitting my day job.

Allan Eastman said...

Very nice piece, Jim...and it is characteristic of the whole biz - the "executive producer" who is really an agent or a suit who couldn't make a film if his life depended on it, the hot director carried by a showrunner and the AD and DP, the boring method performance made reasonable by editing and revoicing and on and's amazing that anything good ever happens at all...I guess it all comes down to trying to maintain your personal integrity in an environment that eats it for lunch...

Clint Johnson said...

I've felt that this is the reason that in the last few years it has gone from "You need to spec last season's hottest show" to "We would actually prefer an original pilot if you have one?"

The showrunner may not know if you can write with another "voice" but at least they know that you wrote it.

Rich Baldwin said...

Inspirational. On a day when it feels like I've been banging my head against a brick wall (you get enough rejections and it can be pretty easy to reject yourself), it's great to hear what's the perspective on the other side of the desk. Thanks.