Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Writers

“God is in the details.”

Mies van der Rohe

Writing is a mysterious art at best – a solitary pursuit of something so ephemeral that it seems to remain eternally out of reach, like a shimmering mirage dancing in the heat waves on the road up ahead. Given that one’s internal voice can be hard to hear over any kind of chatter, poets, short story writers, and novelists (as well as the humble blogger) generally work alone. Many feature screenwriters do as well, although some partner in tag-teams to avoid the vapor-lock of writer’s block that can leave a solitary writer stranded in the creative boondocks.

Writing for television is a very different animal. When a pilot for an episodic drama, dramedy, or comedy (single camera or multi-cam) wins the lottery of pilot season and gets picked up, anywhere from six to twelve scripts need to be churned out fast – and such an all-consuming task requires a group effort. Thus was born the Writer’s Room, where the scripts are “broken” and shaped in rough form before being re-written, fine-tuned, and delivered to the actors.*

I don’t know any of this through personal experience, mind you – while the writers of my show are sequestered in the Writer’s Room mainlining Starbucks to jam their brains into overdrive, I’m out on the set sweating and straining to hang lamps from the pipe grid. Much of what I’ve learned about the process of writing for television came from a blog called "Seriocity" (which has since vanished from the wilds of cyberspace, unfortunately), and Kurt Sutter's blog, while it was still active. As the showrunner of FX’s Hamlet-on-wheels biker drama “Sons of Anarchy,” Sutter is legendary for speaking his mind in an unfiltered manner, which made SutterInk many things – a bridge from the show’s creator to its many fans, a platform for Kurt to expose and rip the behind-the-scenes bullshit that makes it so hard to create anything truly good in Hollywood, and an occasional forum to discuss the hard lessons he has learned in life and the biz. In this post, Sutter talks about what it takes to make it as a writer in Hollywood – or anywhere, really. If his advice isn’t exactly ground-breaking (I read the same ideas twenty years ago in this terrific column by the always-entertaining Joe Bob Briggs), it comes from the heart and rings true.

I’ve been impressed with the writing staff of my show. Some fresh faces arrived with the 15 episode pickup a few weeks ago, bringing an infusion of energy that will be needed to carry us deep into April, and -- with any luck -- make it easy for the network to green light another season. Some among the crew are confident of our shared future, quietly nodding that “we’re good for a three year run, minimum,” but the hard truth remains that nothing is a given in this business. It’s a crapshoot all the way, but our chances of getting that second season would be nil without a really good writing staff. And for anyone tempted to dismiss the traditional multi-camera, laugh-track sit-com as the stepchild of some lesser writing god -- you don’t have to be a fan of the genre to appreciate the effort required to do it well. Crafting a 22 minute script with two intertwining plots, both of which come to an organically satisfying conclusion while providing lots of laughs along the way – and all the while suffering through a shit-rain of network notes – might not be quite the same as writing the script for “Chinatown” or “Citizen Kane, but it’s no easy task.***

We have good writers, and they deserve some respect.

Still, every week during rehearsals there’s a line or two of dialogue that just sounds all wrong. Clunky and awkward, these lines bang off the rim like a brick-shot on the basketball court. Such clunkers can be a redundant sentence that’s simply filling up space – and thus fails to further the comedic narrative -- or just a single poorly chosen word that curdles the tone of the entire scene. At best, these unfortunate choices leave only a brief dent in the viewer’s brain that’s forgotten with next good laugh line, but the worst-case examples can derail the momentum of a scene and interfere with the flow of the show itself. There were two such lines in a recent show that grated at me all during the blocking and pre-shoot day. I kept waiting for the writers to make the simple, seemingly obvious fixes to these lines, but nothing happened – and suddenly there we were shooting the scenes in front of the live audience, take after painful take...

There was nothing I could do. Under most circumstances, the unwritten protocols of on-set behavior preclude a member of the technical crew from going up to the director (especially not that director), producers, or writing staff during a show to explain exactly why and how this or that line should be changed. Violating these protocols once might be forgiven, but a second breach would likely send the offender out the stage door and into the gulag of unemployment -- so I just stood there trying to be stoic about the whole thing. Out of sheer frustration, I finally leaned over to our on-set decorator and whispered my own solution to a particularly egregious line. She thought about it for a second, then looked up at me and nodded. So I turned to one of the assistant camera guys and whispered the same thing. He nodded too. So did the other AC. As it turned out, we’d all been thinking pretty much the same thing – which is when I realized that the whole technical crew was aware of the problem with that line, but like me, remained silent. There are invisible lines in the sand that cannot be crossed without disrupting the established order of the universe –- so we stick to our jobs and keep our mouths shut.

There’s no winning in this kind of situation. Even if you happen to be dead right about a bad line, suggestions from below decks concerning anything other than your own department are rarely welcomed above the line -- and in that case, those ideas should be presented by the department head. Although it's seldom an accurate representation of reality, there’s an undeniable Upstairs, Downstairs class dynamic at work on set -- above-the-line is the brains, below-the-line is the brawn -- so unless you happen to have a very special relationship with one of the Brahmins on high, you’d better keep your bright ideas to yourself. This goes both ways, of course - a writer would never dream of approaching me with advice about how to hang, power, or adjust a particular lamp - but such an unlikely scenario recalls the tongue-in-cheek wisdom of Anatole France's famous quote: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread."

So what to do? Nothing, that’s what. The rules of the set dictate that you concentrate on your job and let everybody else do theirs.

Just as we were about to move on to the next scene, our two executive producers (the head writers) suddenly converged on the actors, scripts and pencils in hand – and lo and behold, the offending dialog was fixed just as we'd all hoped. The on-set decorator jabbed an elbow into my ribs and grinned. We shot the scene again, then went on to finish the show.

I can’t tell you how many times something like this has happened on a shoot night, and even though those awkward lines/poor word choices very rarely make it to broadcast, it always amazes me how long such clunkers can linger in the script - but nine times out of ten, they get fixed before it’s too late.

So the system worked again. Apparently I’ll have to re-learn this lesson every single week, but sometimes you really do just have to relax, let other people do their jobs, and watch the process unfold.

And that means trusting the writers to get it right in the end.

*Even then, the process never stops. New lines are delivered to the actors right on through shoot night.

** She’s also a fervent and eloquent fan of horse racing, the sport of kings, and (I must confess), a very attractive woman.

*** That is, both plots resolved in a manner consistent with the overall tone of the show and the characters – their strengths, weaknesses, and human flaws.


patmdoyle said...

Hey Mike, forget the screenwriters. Your blog is so good, and you are such an excellent writer, that I think you should shop a book made up of some of your best posts. It would be invaluable for anyone interested in knowing what the business is really like, under the line. All the best. P

Michael Taylor said...

Pat --

Nice to hear from you -- thanks for the kind words and encouragement. Such a book is indeed on my mind, but I'm still searching (slowly...) for a structure that might allow it to be something a little more than a simple compilation of posts, but less -- much less -- than a full-blown memoir of my adventures in Hollywood. Another reader suggested a couple of titles to check out as good examples of the genre, and I'm currently reading one of those -- the other is still on order.

Thanks for tuning in, and don't be a stranger in the future. There's a Gmail address on the front page of the blog -- please feel free to use it...

Anonymous said...

Great stuff. I second the conclusions of the first commenter. - kooba