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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.

Green Lantern

YouTube carries more than one fan mashup trailer for a nonexistent live-action Green Lantern film using reprocessed clips from existing blockbusters. This one craftily blends in shots of Nathan Fillion in the Hal Jordan role.

Great casting idea. The Fillion Green Lantern is a movie that I'd happily pay money to see.

For the moment we'll have to make do with an animated GL, to be released in July; over on the Writers' Guild blog there's this preview and a link to an interview with screenwriter Alan Burnett.

Coming up next (growly voice):

Tom Cruise IS... "The Atom"...

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Planet Hood

CBS online have dropped Eleventh Hour from the shows listed on their site and closed the fan forum, but the fanac has relocated to Planet Hood, a dedicated site with a new forum that pretty much picks up where the old threads left off.

From the way they've laid out the stall, it looks as if they're planning to work it up into a resource for info on the episodes. For now it's the place to go if you want to vent some feelings, share some opinions, or even join in with the resurrection campaign.

I see from a Google that there's also the Wiki-based 11thHourShow.org, with character quotes and episode summaries and pix I haven't seen elsewhere.

No, I didn't foster or encourage any of this, although obviously I'm sympathetic to the campaign's aims. From its inception this show has given me some of my worst and some of my best experiences working in TV, and it had finally reached a place where what I'd wanted and what I was getting were one and the same. Who wouldn't want to see that continue?

Monday 25 May 2009


Here's a glimpse of Bryan Talbot's new project:

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Eleventh Hour - We're Cancelled

Well, I just got the news and the news ain't good.

CBS have made their decision and Eleventh Hour isn't getting a second season. We had the numbers, we had great fans, we had a cracking set of new stories ready to go, but the show isn't being picked up.

This is a message for everyone who's made a comment or written in or otherwise made their feelings known.

I want to give my thanks to everyone who was a part of the renewal campaign, and to everyone who showed their support in other ways, and to every one of over twelve million people who made time every week to watch the show. And thanks to Rufus and Marley and Omar and Cyrus and Ethan and everyone whose names you may not know but who came together and met the challenge of making big science thrillers work.

Because of the so-called CBS "cone of silence" during scheduling, there really was no way of knowing which way it would go. But I began to get a sense of it in the last few days, when other shows were getting calls over one detail or another and we were getting nothing. Even so, you don't give up hope; but as the suspense grew and grew I was beginning to get an inkling of how Richard Harris felt in A Man Called Horse.

(You should know what I mean. The scene where they test him by hanging him up by... well, you either know it or you don't)

Usually what happens at this point is that the creator starts talking about keeping it all together and making a movie. I'm not going to do that. And for one good reason; Eleventh Hour's setup and its character set make a purpose-built instrument for telling stories on TV, and TV is where they belong.

I will say this. Don't worry about me, I'm not out of the game and I have other irons in the fire. My relations with the JBTV and Warner Brothers people are still good. I'm going to communicate with our cast and tell them what I'm telling you now; that if, while I'm working on other stuff and keeping my family fed, I should sniff any opportunity to bring Eleventh Hour and some of those untold stories to your TV, I'll be on it like a dog.

Thursday 14 May 2009

Old FX Men Never Die

I just read this on the website for Keswick's newly-opened attraction, The Bond Museum. It's a sister museum to The Cars of the Stars, Peter Nelson's collection of movie action vehicles.
"The jetpack in our museum was assembled for the major Paris Bond exhibition and using some of the original bits from the late Bert Luxford."

Saturday 9 May 2009

Rosemary and Laura Go Gothic

When Nick Elliot stepped down as Controller of ITV Drama, Director of Television Simon Shaps and new Drama Controller Laura Mackie announced the cancellation of a number of the channel's successful shows in a kind of 'image makeover' favouring youth and 'edginess'. Foyle's War was one of the casualties, and Rosemary and Thyme was another - problematical for me because I had a two-show deal for a season that now wasn't going to happen, and no other work on the horizon.

When the new strategy went horribly wrong, Shaps was shown the door and Mackie announced the recommissioning of Foyle's War, which I hear is shooting now.

Rosemary and Thyme didn't fare so well, but by then I was OK because I'd landed another gig. This one would have been an interesting job, though.

A problem with the show was that the British summer is too short for the number of shooting weeks that were required for a season - somewhat crucial where garden locations are involved.

So each season would budget for two episodes to be shot back-to-back in an overseas location with a better climate, and those are the episodes I was hired for. We set our sights on Portugal and went out there to scout - producer Brian Eastman, production manager Christabel Albery, and me. Our driver/contact/factotum was a makeup artist who told us stories of Klaus Kinski temper explosions and an 'international' European star's rupturing facelifts - no joke when you're the person trying to make him up for the screen, I imagine.

Anyway, we based ourselves in Sintra and raced around every big public, private and palace garden in the area, and in the course of the trip nailed down two scenarios. One centred on the fabulous Monserrate villa and gardens built by notorious libertine and author of Vathek William Beckford, and involved the hunt for Beckford's treasure which turned out to be... nah, I'll hold onto that one just in case. The other was essentially a Hope and Crosby Road movie which started with the two main characters being kicked out of a small-town jail after a night in the cells and then bickering and hustling their way across country with no money or luggage.

Got home, broke the stories, and - pouf. Shaps killed the show.

Btw, Laura Mackie is the daughter of TV writer Philip Mackie, whose credits include a fine and fondly-remembered Granada series The Caesars, covering much of the same ground as the BBC's adaptation of I Claudius but predating it. The series is available on DVD but only survives as a shoddy 16mm telerecording that doesn't do it justice.

The Writers' Guild at 50

Here's a thing I didn't know: if you're a member of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain and you sell a script in the US, the hefty WGA registration fee is waived. And WGA membership is a requirement over there, not an option.

This just received from Tom Green:

The Writers' Guild of Great Britain is celebrating its 50th anniversary on Wednesday 13th May 2009 and, to commemorate this momentous occasion, we are offering 50 people the chance to join the Guild on its 50th anniversary for just £50.

This offer applies to Full members, who currently pay a minimum of £150 per annum, and Candidate members who pay £100. The offer applies to a new member's first year of membership only.

To be one of the lucky 50, call the Guild's Membership Team on 13th May 2009, between 9.30am and 5.30pm, on 01952 214 063 and quote 'WGGB Anniversary Offer'. You can pay your £50 over the telephone by credit or debit card and your welcome pack will be sent on within a few days.

Alternatively, members of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain Facebook Group can take advantage of the special offer by sending a Facebook message with their name and contact details to fellow group member Naomi MacDonald AND changing their status on 13th May to "Happy 50th Birthday to the Writers' Guild of Great Britain"

Please note that this special offer is only available on 13th May 2009.

We look forward to welcoming our 50 new members. What better way to celebrate our half-century!

Thursday 7 May 2009

On the set of Crusoe

The Crusoe Region 1 boxed set is now officially out, with the first torrented rips preceding it online like pageboys scattering rose petals ahead of the bride.

But really, save your bandwidth and your blank discs; at $19.99 from Amazon piracy really isn't worth the trouble, even when you add international postage.

It's also available from CD-WOW and I've seen what appears to be a legit Region 2 version offered on eBay; I think it's a Dutch release with switchable subs, but don't quote me on that.

To mark the release, here are some of those UK behind-the-scenes shots I promised a while back. Just about all our UK stuff was shot in or close to the city of York, and if there's any interest I'll compile a list of the locations sometime. It's a place I'd recommend for a visit anyway, and in the space of a long weekend one could put together quite a neat 'Crusoe trail' of sites and houses. Maybe if I go broke I should hire a bus and run tours.

Bernie (props) and Mia Maestro as Olivia/Oliver, preparing for her first scene in the Old Shambles, York
Three Graces, York Minster
Production Designer Jonathan Lee
Philip Winchester, Mark Dexter
Anna Walton, Terence Harvey
Sean Bean, Philip Winchester
Sam Neill with director Duane Clark
Though it was a Bank Holiday, we were allowed to close York Minster...
...and bring in this amazing crane for the Crusoe wedding sequence
St William's College, behind the Minster, served as another of our London streets
After the wedding, Newby Hall exterior
Joaquim de Almeida, Yerblogger, and a rare shot of Executive Producer Jeff Hayes captured in a brief moment of near-stillness
Of course, it's not everyone has the legs for shorts

Saturday 2 May 2009

Eleventh Hour US

We - I say we, because the Bruckheimer gang have gone out of their way to make me feel a part of the team - are going through a weird-feeling time at the moment, waiting to see if CBS are going to opt for a second season. The show has its champions, and also its critics. It also pulled a steady audience averaging twelve million people, which is not to be sniffed at.

Some commentators are pointing to a numbers dip for the season finale as an indicator of decline, overlooking the fact that the timeslot had been pre-empted for basketball the previous two weeks, and that the episode (my episode!) was up against the last-ever ER. For me that's nothing new - seeing my stuff pre-empted for sports has been the bane of my professional life.

If there is a second season, then there's lots of good stuff lined up for it... I won't go into detail in case I suddenly find that I'm not a part of the team anymore. Nobody loves a blabber. But really it's down to CBS deciding whether to build on what's there or roll the dice again and hope for something bigger.

I heard last week that there's a fan campaign for renewal - as well as messages and letters of support, people have been sending wristwatches to CBS with the hands set at eleven o'clock.

Wristwatches! And if that doesn't work, they have bigger weapons to roll out.

Oh, yes. There's talk of wall clocks...

Six Things of No Importance

Over at Blowing My Thought Wad, I was tagged by Good Dog to reveal six things of no real importance about myself. These are the rules of this particular tag game and I can tell you now, I'm going to break one of them...
(A) Put the link of the person who tagged you on your blog.
(B) Write the rules.
(C) Mention six things or habits of no real importance about yourself.
(D) Tag six people adding their links directly.
It's the last one that's a problem, and one of the reasons why I've been dithering over this since March; I still feel like something of a newcomer to 'the blogosphere' and every blogger I read seems to have been through this already. If I don't know for sure that they have, then I'm guessing they have and I've missed it. If you're one of them and I'm wrong, well... take it as a compliment. I'm just assuming you're that popular.
1. I can't ride a bike.
2. The first recognition I ever got for writing was an award from the Temperance Society for an essay on the evils of drink.
3. I dislike onions, vinegar, and coffee.
4. I've visited 24 of the United States and filled in one of those online maps so I could see them all.
5. I've never watched or listened to any interview I've done for TV or radio.
6. According to my parents, when I was five I had a crush on Petula Clark.
So there you go. Inept, hypocritical, high-maintenance, smug, insecure, and riddled with unfulfilled longing.

Sounds about right.