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Friday, 29 May 2009

The UK Writer in US TV

I've been urged to share my experience of writing for the American TV system as I've experienced it these past few months. Here's how it went:
1. On the back of the Eleventh Hour remake I get an invite to meet the Bruckheimer gang, aka JBTV, to talk about developing something new, and at the end of the chat they ask if I'd be interested in freelancing an Eleventh Hour episode as a sidebar. So from my ever-ready stock of ideas I pitch them five or six springboards. Then fly home.

2. They call me within three days to say which of them they like, giving specific reasons why they haven't picked the others (a clash of subject matter with some other episode, a blanket network antipathy to certain subjects). They show all three to Warner Brothers, and Warners pick one. The chosen story is shown to CBS and CBS say yes. No more than a week has passed and we move to the next stage which is:

3. A twelve-page scene-by-scene outline. This takes about four days to write. As I'm sending it in, JBTV book a notes call. Within 48 hours I'm getting their notes in a 20-minute phone conversation. Less than an hour after the call I get an email - it's my outline with all their notes footnoted in. The revisions are line-specific and take no more than a few hours to execute. The revised outline goes to Warners, there's another notes call, another footnoted email, same level of input. The second revised outline goes to CBS. CBS add their notes and I'm "launched to script".

4. Because the outline's now so tight, the script only takes a week. So we're now like, three or four weeks into the process and we're already at first draft. Over the next couple of weeks the script goes through the same three-stage process as followed by the proposal and the outline - JBTV (the production company) draft and notes, Warner Brothers (the studio) draft and notes, and finally CBS (the broadcasting network) draft and notes.

5. The showrunners do a light-touch 'showrunner pass' to tweak my last draft into house style and the director starts prep within about three days of my handing it in. Any changes thereafter are purely for production needs. At this point CBS ask for me to do another episode, only this time they need to move a bit quicker. JBTV pick one of the other stories and we're off again.
So it's taken roughly seven weeks to get from first conversation to the start of shooting. This really is the way to do notes. They book the notes call before they've read the material, which is psychologically good because you don't get that clunk in spirits when you hand something in and wait and wait and then get summoned to have the error of your ways explained to you. Plus, they're committing up-front to turning it around at the same kind of speed they expect from you. No notes session takes more than half an hour, and you get instant documentation to back up everything that's said. And - get this - the notes are about the script, not the ideas behind it! (How many times have you sat through 2-hour meetings where everybody airs their views on the subject-matter, and you come away with not one useful script note?)

And then - the director comes in and shoots the material. All of his or her energy goes straight into staging and framing and pacing and telling the story.

Here's the nub of it. It looks fast and scary. But for the writer, the actual amount of work in turning out an hour-long script for American TV barely differs from that involved in creating script for a UK hour. The difference is that the US system edits out the soul-destroying longueurs between stages, while your script sits on someone's desk or some executive disappears on holiday. It's the same act of writing, but you get to do it in real time; and because of that, you don't run the risk of anyone - you included - falling out of love with what you're doing.

17 comments:

Dan said...

Thanks for sharing. That does sound like a very efficient writing process. But are there any downsides you can envisage? Is there a risk of burnout with such swift development, or would you quickly acclimatize to the speed? Maybe it just depends what kind of writer you are. Did you get any first-hand experience of the famous US writers' rooms?

Stephen Gallagher said...

There's a Darwinian aspect to the whole process which means that if you don't keep up then, in the words of one staff writer, you "fall off the face of the Earth". Which is a downside if ever there was one.

As for the writers' rooms question... that'll be pertinent to a near-future post.

Dan said...

I'll look forward to that. I think UK drama would be improved immensely if entire series could be carefully crafted in a creative group. "Two heads are better than one", etc. A single author's voice has its place in certain genres (comedy, say), but I'd love UK television to take a few cues from the US system.

Slightly OT, but always wanted to say how much I loved Chimera back in the day. First "adult" horror on TV that really creeped me out as a young 'un. :)

Lee Goldberg said...

So...why isn't it possible to replicate this process in the UK?

Lee Goldberg said...

I don't mean the writer's room system...I know it's too costly for studios and broadcasters at this point...but what's preventing the swiftness?

Stephen Gallagher said...

Part of me feels that, at the root of it, it's because the US system hires writers and puts them straight to work while the UK system buys stories and slowly tinkers them into shape.

A writer friend of mine -- and he's one of the best we have -- has spent over a year writing a double-figure number of drafts on a project, only to be told now by his executive that he wants a "page one" rewrite... ie, chuck it all out and start again.

And when I was in London for our dinner last week, I met up with three different people that I hadn't seen in over a year. Every one of them was still trying to push forward with the same project they'd been working on the last time we'd met!

Lee Goldberg said...

Did you friend turn in a beat sheet before going to script? Several of the executives I met with while I was in London told me that TV writers in the UK are rarely asked to turn in a beat sheet and that most executives wouldn't know how to read one anyway. Is this true!? It seems to me that writing a beat sheet, and revising all the story elements at that point rather than in script would save on rewrites and speed up the process considerably.

Gail Renard said...

I don't even think you need a beat sheet. You need good writers who know what they are doing and fewer execs who don't. All the excess layers of execs added to British production in the last few years is just their own job creation scheme. It doesn't make a show better; in many cases it makes it worse.

And people find it all too easy to blame the writer. Granted not every writer is Shakespeare but most of the problems are endemic to this "committee" system here.

Lee Goldberg said...

There's a committee systems here, too...and layers upon layers of executives...but the beat sheet stage at least creates a point of agreement on exactly what the story will be and how it will play out in the script. I can't help but think that going straight to script before every step of the story is agreed upon almost guarantees that the writer is going to have to do multiple rewrites. That's not to say multiple rewrites don't happen even with prior beat-sheet approvals...but I've found they usually have more to do with fine-tuning character and dialog and less with the actual structure of the story. I think the beat-sheet stage is especially critical when you are dealing with mystery stories. But there are also a whole bunch of production reasons for starting with a beat sheet...if the line producer gives you his notes at that stage, it will save you from production rewrites down-the-line.

Lee

Gail Renard said...

Of course you're right, Lee. But more and more in British telly, the beat sheet means nothing.

On the last show I wrote I was (a) given the wrong beat sheet for the first draft and (b) after I wrote the second draft to the newly agreed beat sheet the execs changed their minds, and completely changed the second beat sheet.

There are so many problems with the system I don't know where to begin. But often production personnel are on short term contracts to save money and are totally inexperienced. And they won't get that experience on sporadic short term contracts. The joke is I'm an optimist! But this road lies madness.

Stephen Gallagher said...

I find beat sheets are great when a show's up and running but you need to have reached a consensus on what the show is, before you can start communicating stories in that kind of shorthand.

I was devising a series where the producer demanded we start from a beat sheet before I'd worked out the format, the characters, or any of the parameters of the world. Because we don't make pilots in the UK, the process of discovery largely gets loaded into the writing of the first script. I made that point, and he called me some names.

Once I'd devised the world, I was fine. I went on to produce 'step outlines'(as we call them) for subsequent episodes. Everyone ignored them and saved their notes for the first drafts.

English Dave said...

Stephen - maybe I can say the unsayable here? As one who has in the past waited six weeks for first draft notes? The monoliths of the BBC, ITV, etc are stuffed with people who, with the best will in the world, have no business being in this business. I used to write for The Bill where six drafts were the norm. How soul destroying knowing that no matter how good the first second or third drafts were, some bod felt that if it didn't go to six they weren't doing their job. I wrote for Casualty too but gave it up after getting some numpty as a script editor who happened to be the son of a well known film director. His only qualification, which didn't make up for his utter lack of dramatic sense.

It's not about efficiency. It's about how good the people are. In the cut-throat world of US TV I get the feeling that the dead wood gets cleared out a lot quicker.

Gail Renard said...

I agree with you, Stephen, that a beat sheet's only any use when a series's format is well-embedded and its house-style known. I wouldn't think of doing one before the format's in place. When I devise a new series, I do a complete bible of the format, characters and possible storylines whether the company wants it or not... I do! I couldn't start on a series without one.

And English Dave, you're right about the unemployable who are employed in British television. Darwin would have had a field day. I know I go on about this, but seriously, the WGGB is doing something about all this. But the way for the battle to be won is by writers working collectively through the British Guild so our voices will be heard. Any writers who aren't members out there, join! If the WGA moved mountains last year, surely we can move a hillock...Can I say hillock?

Westerly21 said...

Hi Stephen
Nice and interesting blog. Good to know the Brits are still doing well in the sun!!
I shall be following your words...

Antonia said...

Great post. Thanks. The Brit system sounds like it's a lot slower and everyone's wanting their piece of the action.

How nice to just go with it, like they trust you.

Désirée said...

Very interesting blog post. My first visit to your blog and I will be back. Thank you for sharing.

Bedelia said...

The trouble with beat sheets/step outlines on UK series is that they are signed off by the most junior person in the chain (who may just want to see how it turns out in script form) - senior execs don't read until at least third draft, so "approval" of the original beat sheet is irrelevant.