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“It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.” – Mark Twain

What: Rod Buckley, owner of the Lucky Rabbit Casino in downtown Reno, has bitten the dust, literally and figuratively, having been found face down in the desert, bullet holes in the head and chest. The suspects and motives are plentiful.

Who: Rod Buckley inherited the Lucky Rabbit Casino from his father, a brilliant entrepreneur, and Rod did what most wastrel, drug addled sons would do – run it into the ground. Found naked in the desert outside of town, drilled full of holes, it would appear that the casino, what’s left of it, will soon be under new management. With his death, control of the casino was (and forever will be) called into question as the local bank already owned 49½ %. Another 49½ % was willed to his son, Peter, and daughter, Penny, children from his second marriage; and the final 1% was willed to a mysterious stranger by the name of Joe Smith. Who, everyone, including Reno police detectives Roger White and Reggie Rivers, wants to know, is Joe Smith?

Joe, it turns out, is a man of action who assesses the pros and cons and steps in to make those cons pros.

Peter, who inherited his father’s brains, decides to settle things once and for all, confronting Joe at the International House of Pancakes during breakfast.

Peter: Did you kill my father?

Joe laughs

Joe Smith: No.

Peter: Then how did you get that share?... I don’t really care how you got it, because eventually someone’s going to find out, and then you’ll be in jail, or you’ll be dead.

Peter’s trying to size Joe up. But that’s like a tic-tac-toe player trying to beat Gary Kasparov.

Joe Smith: That any way to talk to your new partner?

Peter: Fifty grand, that’s as high as I’ll go. You can have a suite at the hotel for a week, all expenses paid.

Joe Smith: A whole week! Wow. And all I have to do is sign over my share?

Peter: The casino’s broke, it’ll probably go under.

Joe picks up the entertainment section. Peter’s watching him, still trying to figure this guy out.

Peter: What are you getting? One percent of a dump. What’s that get you? Your buddies back home going to think you’re a big-time guy? A casino owner. Save yourself the headache, Joe. A lot of people are looking to take you down, and it’s only a matter of time… So take the money, grab a t-shirt out of the gift shop, and go back to wherever the fuck you came from.

Joe studies him for a long beat, then shakes his head.

Joe Smith: No… You got to sell that more. I didn’t feel it, you know what I mean?

Peter stares back blankly.

Joe Smith: It wasn’t a threat… (checking) At least I don’t think it was a threat.

More blank look.

 

Joe Smith: If you’re going to tell a guy to go… I mean, really go… You got to come up with a real reason. The buddy thing… (shrugs) Cute, but who cares. When it comes to money, friends don’t matter. And that line about people. How did you say it… “a lot of people want to take me down?” …What people? Cops? Girl scouts?... Ninjas?

This isn’t going nearly as well as Peter wanted.

Joe Smith: Take my advice, forget the threats. You can’t pull it off. Come at it another way. You ever train a dog?... Better to reward it when it’s good than punish it when it’s bad.

Peter: I don’t understand.

Joe Smith: Find out what I really want. What do I like? What do I do for kicks? That kind of thing.

Peter: (unsure) Okay.

Joe Smith: Try it again.

He picks up the paper and sits back.

Joe Smith: I’ll pretend like I’m not expecting it.

So starts an intricate game of cat and mouse; one in which the extremely adept cat will toy with the under-matched mice – Peter, Penny, Tony Panetti, the casino’s crooked general manager, and Fred Ingerhoff,  president of the bank owning the other 49½ %.

Called to the bank, and made to wait, Joe Smith is finally led into Fred Ingerhoff’s office. After some meaningless small talk…

Joe Smith: …So what was it you wanted to see me about?

Fred Ingerhoff: My job is to protect the bank’s interests. And you control a portion, however small, of the property we won forty nine and one half percent of—

Joe Smith: And you want fifty and a half?

Fred Ingerhoff: We want the casino and hotel to return to profitability. Mr. Buckley had a different philosophy than ours, and his philosophy turned out to be crap. Now we want an opportunity to run the business in a more efficient manner.

Joe Smith: Well that’s why I’m here.

Beat

Fred Ingerhoff: Excuse us if we don’t see it that way.

Another beat as Fred smiles the kind of smile you just want to slap off somebody’s face.

Joe Smith: You know what I hate, Fred? I hate guys who keep saying “we” when they’re the only one in the room. And I hate banks who forget that all they are is a place to put your money. Let me guess, you get my share of the Lucky Rabbit, “however small” that is, then turn around and appoint yourself director. Well fuck you, Fred, you didn’t do anything. Guys like you play it safe. You won’t gamble unless it’s with other people’s dough… So we both know what’s what. We both know that I’m the only thing keeping those sibling sociopaths from having the controlling interest in the Rabbit, and if they got that… it’s goodbye, Fred.

Joe stands. He’s not mad. He’s not even a little-worked up. We get the feeling that chewing out guys like Fred just makes Joe hungry for lunch.

Joe Smith: Don’t ever make me wait again.

And Joe exits.

Joe, non-plussed by his current encounters, sets about, with the help of several slick and dangerous-looking associates, turning the Lucky Rabbit into an inviting, respectable establishment, much to the astonishment of all concerned.

There is, of course, still the matter of Rod Buckley’s murder in the desert; a murder that looked easily solvable when Rod’s mistress Destiny, the topless dancer, and Destiny’s husband (there’s always a husband) were stopped at the airport trying to smuggle suitcases full of silver bars through security. In the ensuing chase, the husband is shot by the police and Destiny is arrested for the murder of Rod, as the silver bars were the property of the deceased, having been buried in the desert not far from where his body was found. Reluctantly, Roger and Reggie come to the conclusion that Destiny and her now-dead husband were guilty only of theft, leaving them with a multitude of other suspects. And the mysterious Joe Smith is at the top of that list.

No Meaner Place: Fierro has deliciously created a “what if” scenario based on the infamous Ted Binion case in Las Vegas, in which Binion’s mistress, topless dancer Sandy Murphy, and Murphy’s boyfriend, Rick Tabish, the man Binion had hired to transport his silver and treasures to his new under-desert vault, were arrested looting Binion’s underground stronghold shortly after the discovery of Binion’s dead body, a death alleged to be a suicide using all of the drugs to which he was addicted – xanax, tar heroin, and valium.  The Las Vegas police, or in this case the Keystone Cops, bungled the investigation and when Murphy and Tabish were eventually convicted of the murder, the Nevada Supreme court overturned the conviction and mandated a new trial. In the subsequent trial, this time with a first rate defense team, both were convicted only of burglary and grand larceny.  Both are now free.

Like Ted Binion, Rod Buckley took a going concern, a good reputation, and a seemingly loving family and drove them into the ground.  Using flashback and voice-over narration to excellent effect, we learn that besides Penny and Peter, Rod also had another son, Michael (our story’s narrator and guide), from a previous relationship, one that was dissolved when Rod abandoned Michael and his mother and opened the door to Penny, Peter and their mother. Seemingly aware of all the machinations, perhaps Joe Smith will sort it out for us, or in more biblical terms: “For now we see as through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” That should clear it up.

With no immediate collision point in sight, the eventual solution to the murder or the question of the identity of Joe Smith are tantalizing details that will only lead us deeper and deeper into quick sand. But oh what a journey it would have been.

Life Lessons for Writers“You got to look on the bright side, even if there ain’t one.” Dashiell Hammett. And ain’t it always the case when you’re pitching a pilot.

CONVERSATION WITH THE WRITER:

Neely: I am so glad that Jack LoGiudice sent me this script to read. The two of you worked together on “Resurrection Blvd.” and he’s obviously a huge fan.

Adam: He’s always been interested in the work I’ve done and supported it.

Neely: I have to say, Adam, this script is a case of “the names have been changed to protect the guilty.” Did you follow the very juicy Binion trial when it was going on?

Adam: No, I wasn’t aware of it at the time.  I think I saw an episode of some true-crime type of show on television and thought it was just an unbelievable world.  Those characters, Ted Binion and his stripper girlfriend, are people I could never have come up with if I tried.

Neely: When did you come up with the idea to use that incredibly insane story as a backdrop?

Adam: I needed to write a spec pilot to show as a sample to find work.  It was important to get the right story so I could give it the exact tone I felt would be show the kind of writing I wanted to do.   When I saw the original program about the Binion murder I knew it was a something I would borrow from sometime in the future.  The pilot was the perfect place to do that.

Neely: What kind of research did you do into the twists and turns in the second Binion trial when the murder conviction was overturned and they were acquitted of murder (but not of several other charges)?

Adam: I really didn’t do any research. I just saw a program that showed what happened in the first trial (note: see “Ted Binion” on trutv.com) and then I took the resolution of the second trial and built a story around that.

Neely: I was especially impressed by the report that the jury in the second trial felt news accounts reported that jurors had been unwilling to find them guilty because the forensic evidence introduced by the prosecution had not met the standards of “C.S.I.” (source: Wikipedia)

Adam: I did see that. I saw that Sandy was let out and the boy friend was still in prison for other issues.

Neely: This really is a case of fact being stranger than fiction. It was, probably, a justice disaster waiting to happen because the Vegas police refused to investigate the death at the time and waited months before they looked into the irregularities of Binion’s death which was originally ruled a suicide.

Adam: These guys seemed really guilty. I didn’t know that about the investigation.

Neely: Tell me a bit about why you decided to use Reno instead of Vegas. Did you research Reno as a locale?

Adam: No, I didn’t and I’m embarrassed to say that because it comes across as somewhat lazy. It was more about what Reno represented to me, which was that it wasn’t Vegas. It was a sort of a low life “wanna-be” Vegas, but not even that. In fact, I think I described it as desert and someone who knew Reno – I’ve never been – pointed out that it’s really more of a mountainous terrain. So I don’t know if I got the actual geographic terrain right. But using Reno was more symbolic of what it represents as a small, less exotic version of what I imagine Las Vegas represents to most people.

Neely: Clearly Roger and Reggie are more on top of things than the Las Vegas police who initially declined to make any kind of an investigation. How long were you planning on having Roger and Reggie investigate the murder? Please give us a hint as to the kinds of things they would uncover?

Adam: I thought if this became a series, Roger and Reggie would pursue the investigation until the story was resolved, ultimately leading to the arrest of Joe for the murder.  I was hoping Roger and Joe could develop an interesting relationship based on mutual respect.  Two alpha dogs that could never let the other too far out of its sight.

Neely: You say that ultimately the investigation will lead to the arrest of Joe for murder. Clearly Joe was the frontrunner for the murder but if you arrest him, that’s the end of the series. Wouldn’t there have been a way to resolve the murder and still continue with Reggie and Roger and Joe? Ultimately it seemed to me that the resolution of the murder is just a “B” story at best.

Adam: I hadn’t really thought of it that way; I just thought of it as the ongoing investigation. We might see the cops investigate other tangents that may or may not be related to it – go down different dead ends. But the main detective, Roger, was going to become obsessed with this murder case; he always suspected Joe but just couldn’t prove it. That would go on for whatever the length of the series was.

Neely: For me it was that Joe was such a powerful character and I hate the idea of the investigation and its solution being the collision point that will end the series. If you can make it about something else or find someone else who might have done the murder, then it’s more than 100 stories because it’s Reno, it’s a crummy casino, and there are so many different directions to go.

Adam: I see what your saying. I just always thought that Joe did do the murder and they couldn’t prove it. Maybe someone else becomes a suspect or maybe they pin it on somebody. There are different things that can be done. I don’t think we ever definitively know he did it, I just think we need to think it.

Neely: I loved the voice over narration of Michael. I know this is off-the-wall, but I could hear the voice of Gil Stratton in Billy Wilder’s “Stalag 17.” Stratton played the stooge for William Holden’s character and Stratton’s naïve quality added an interesting dimension to a very noir film, one that had one of the most defining anti-heroes in the cinema. In some ways, the Gil Stratton-style voiceover led me to think of Joe Smith in terms of a Holden-like good bad guy (or bad good guy) and made me want to pull for him all the harder. On the one hand, he can logically only be out for himself, and on the other, his motivations are as big a mystery as he is.

Adam: I never saw that movie, but I’m interested to see it now.  I want people to pull for Joe.  I want them to like him.  He’s done a lot of things wrong in his life… Really wrong.  Personally and professionally.  But he’s older now, and more self-aware.  He knows he can’t change the past, but whatever life he has left he wants to make the most of.  For him that’s making the casino work; improving it and building it into a place people would want to go, a place he would want to go.  If you’re on board for his vision, he would be the best friend you could ever have.  If you’re not on board you’ve put yourself at risk.  A tiger can’t change his stripes, and he’s accepted that about himself.  So I think his motives are mostly true.  But he also knows there’s a past out there that will probably eventually catch up to him.  Until that time he wants to get the most out of life he can.  Who doesn’t like to be around people that know how to eat life up?

Neely: Michael, as narrator, will always be asking the same questions that we are asking, giving this the sense that the fourth wall is being broken. As we both know, voice-over narration is difficult to pull off because most people use it as an excuse to introduce explanatory exposition. How did you feel you could avoid those pitfalls?

Adam: I had never used voice-over as a device. Normally I don’t like it in film for all the reasons you described, and we’re taught it’s a sign of poor writing.  So I had always intended to use it more like an internal dialogue than an expositional tool.  It’s a great way to add humor, and it just seemed better in terms of the mystery of who Joe Smith is if we were observing him through the eyes of the uninitiated.  Michael’s interesting because he can be earnest with a real emotional stake in the story, but also someone who is in thrall to Joe.  We don’t know if that will be good or bad for Michael, but I hope we care, one way or the other.  Obviously I was creating a father/son relationship with Michael and Joe, which is a first for both of them.

Neely: I’d love to know more about Joe Smith. You drop a few hints… a wife who shows up unexpectedly; a personal profile that fits someone in witness protection; possible organized crime ties… Who is this guy?!

Adam: I think as the story went on we would learn more about him, and what we would learn we wouldn’t like.  I think he’s a violent man who’s capable of horrendous acts, but like I said before, he’s self-aware now.  It’s not an excuse, but he’s not making any. It doesn’t forgive what he’s done in the past, but he’s not asking for anybody’s forgiveness except maybe his ex-wife.  The casino represents more of a bucket list thing to him than a journey of redemption, but at some point those two themes seem like they would have to blend into each other in some way.

Neely: Who did you take this to and what was the reaction?

Adam: People liked it.  When I wrote it serialized stuff wasn’t really in vogue.  I remember when I wrote it an executive said no one would ever do a show about Las Vegas.  I thought to myself it’s about Reno, but I understood her point.  I always thought somebody would take a shot on it someday.  I still do.  But the truth is this script really made my career by getting me some jobs on some key shows, and if that’s the only thing it accomplishes it was well worth writing.

Neely: Did it come close? Any helpful notes? Any inane notes?

Adam: Not really insane notes.  The usual notes.  “How can we turn this into a stand alone episodic show;” that kind of thing.  When executives think of casinos they think more glitzy, etc.  This is and should be the opposite.  A fringe casino in a city that wishes it was Vegas, populated by fish who survive in the little pond but would be devoured in the larger one.  It’s really all about the tone, and television usually isn’t so much.

Neely: I felt that this was definitely a cable show. When the networks indicated that they wanted a stand-alone episodic, a code word for procedural, they have now opened up more to a stand-alone with a serialized thru-line. This could definitely be made to fall into that category, don’t you think?

Adam: Yes. But I don’t think that this script was ever really sent out to be set up. I wrote it about 10 years ago and at the time there wasn’t really a lot of serialized stuff on the air. I’m trying to think about what was out there. To be honest, I don’t think the agent even bothered to send it out to the networks. The script was written mostly as a sample. I think it was sent to a couple of places where they talked about maybe doing something with it, but there was definitely not a full court press in terms of trying to set it up.

Neely: That leads to something else that I hadn’t thought of, but this script, like several others I’ve written about, was sent out by the agent only as a writing sample. On the one hand, yes, it’s a wonderful writing sample; I can see where it got you lots of work. But this is really a very viable pilot script. When it’s sent out as a writing sample, how does one get it looked at as a viable project.

Adam: It’s funny, because I’m always telling my agents that maybe we should look at this script again and see if there’s a market for. These things are so cyclical. On the one hand it seems like it’s not the right time for a script like this and then you turn around and there seems to be three or four shows like it tonally. I never really seemed to be exactly at the crest of the wave. It’s not a criticism that they haven’t really approached it that way. I think part of the reason is that I don’t think there was really a market for it at the time I wrote it; and I think in an agent’s mind they assume once something has been seen that its commercial appeal is shot. Sometimes it’s all about timing. I’ve thought about going to them and saying “hey, maybe we should look at this and maybe we could attach an element to it.” And I have no doubt that they would consider it. But the script has been seen a lot; it’s set up a lot of jobs for me. The assumption, I suppose, is that if people had wanted to do it they would have done it. Sometimes it’s the way it’s presented.

Neely: A perfect example of that is “Mad Men” the script of which had hung around for years and years. Weiner used it as a writing sample and it got him “The Sopranos” but it was the pilot he wanted to produce. The fact that people had seen it before, eventually the right network, and clearly this was cable, saw the possibilities, especially since they wanted to get into the game. A viable alternative here might be Starz which wants to get into original programming and has been doing a pretty poor job in terms of their choices. Even if “The Lucky Rabbit” was taken out as a pitch, there are so many people in those development jobs who weren’t around when you wrote this.

Adam: That’s a good point. Ten years ago a lot of these cable stations didn’t exist. It’s a very different landscape now. Starz is actually a real good idea for it; and maybe a couple of other companies. I should really have that conversation with them. You know, for some reason it’s very hard to attach elements to television projects, especially actors. I always felt that if you could get a really interesting actor for one of the characters it would be very appealing. It’s a lot easier to attach directors. “The Lucky Rabbit” is a very visual script. I think Starz is a really interesting idea. I should have that conversation sooner rather than later. Even though it’s been out for ten years, there are probably a lot of people who haven’t seen it.

Neely: You know, in the past attaching an actor to a TV script, while not exactly problematic, was not business as usual unless the network had a holding deal they needed to burn off. In terms of cable, now you can absolutely attach talent because relatively big stars – Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgewick, Dustin Hoffman – are willing to be attached to a good script if it’s on cable with a limited episodic order. That any of the big names would have considered television ten years ago would have been unthinkable.

Adam: I love Ray Liotta. A lot of feature people are making their way to television. Frankly, I think you can make the argument that the work is a lot better, especially on cable.

Neely: Say for someone like Ray Liotta, the number of good quality movies, independent interesting movies – that arena is incredibly limited right now. Television is doing what those movies used to provide. And what a brilliant idea to come up with Ray Liotta just off the top of your head as “Joe Smith.” He was willing to do “Smith,” the John Wells series a couple of years back, because it was going to be a one season and out (but didn’t last the season).

Adam: That’s one more reason to have my agent put it out there again.

Neely: Do you think there’s another way of developing this? Although this is clearly television, there might be a way of turning this into a feature that is more centered on the character of Joe Smith with most everyone else as much more ancillary. He really is a great anti-hero.

Adam: I’ve thought about it.  I’ve always thought it would be nice to maybe develop it with a filmmaker, something like that.

Neely: What direction would you take it in if you were doing this as a film?

Adam: That’s a good question. I haven’t really thought about it. The great thing about writing a pilot is that you don’t have to close it off, resolve it at the end. Just giving it some thought right now, I would think that Joe Smith’s past would catch up with him and he’d have to deal with it in some way.  I’d have to define exactly what that past is, and whether or not it’s something he can surmount. It’s interesting that you brought it up because I didn’t really consider it a feature film although, ironically, it is the script that my features agent sends out to producers to consider me for work. I guess it is kind of written like a feature.

Neely: I still think that it is TV, but it could be reshaped as a feature. Your characters are vibrant and I don’t think it would be that difficult to find a resolution. The thing with television writers, who I think are doing the best writing right now, is that the reason they write television is because they’re not done with the characters they create. You want to play them out over a much longer period of time. They’re family, whether for good or ill, and they have more stories to tell and so do you. That’s the difficulty, finding an end point resolution on something that was written as a series.

Adam: What you create in television is powered by a much more long-term dynamic. Of course it can be resolved. I was more worried about mob films in general. Mob genre has always been something that is either in vogue or out of vogue – no in between. I’ve never quite felt it was the time to pursue it as a feature, but the next time you turn around, there it will be – that type of film that someone has done well, and you think of it as a missed opportunity. But it feels like the kind of genre that people don’t go after in terms of trying to find projects that are easier to set up. Maybe I shouldn’t think of it that way because it’s defeating it before it gets a fair shot.

Neely: You’ve written a great script here, so don’t limit yourself. But in terms of Mr. Smith and his henchmen, it’s easy to think of them as mob guys. But on the other hand, and especially in the present climate, it wouldn’t take much rethinking. The mobsters of today aren’t Italian or Jewish or Russian criminals; they’re Wall Street lawyers and investors. There’s no reason not to rethink these guys who play like mobsters; they also play like investment bankers and hedge fund managers, today’s true villains, who are taking a very close watch on their investment.

Adam: That’s really true. I agree with that.

Neely: You’ve been doing this for quite a while. When did you first realize that you wanted to write, or even that you had write?

Adam: I don’t have to write.  I think I can tell stories pretty well.  Writing is hard for me.  I have ADD and it’s always been a struggle.  In my previous life, I was an agent and represented writers.  Some of them used to complement me on my ideas and my notes and suggestions about scripts.  I guess I finally started thinking that maybe I had a skill for that.  Also, there wasn’t anything else I really wanted to do instead.

Neely: What agency did you work for?

Adam: ICM.

Neely: When did you make the switch?

Adam: I got fired from ICM in the early 90s; it’s been a long time. I used my severance money to start writing. I wrote some screenplays that were well received, although I didn’t sell any of them. It took me about five years; I’m not sure how I managed to survive. When I was about to throw in the towel, one of my agents said I should try writing a television spec. It just so happened that I really liked “Homicide” and I thought I could write it well. That spec got me a lot of attention and I got hired off of that. If there hadn’t been a show that I really enjoyed watching, I might not have written that spec, so things all worked out for a reason, I guess.

Neely: That’s an amazing journey and took a lot of guts to follow it through.

Adam: I started late, and I remember thinking that, after five years, it was like a poker game and being “all in.” I didn’t know what else to do if that didn’t work out because I’d already gone so far down the road. Knock on wood; it worked out. I’m very lucky.

Neely: Where did you go to college?

Adam: I went to UCLA.

Neely: Did you already know you had ADD?

Adam: No. I was diagnosed less than a year ago.

Neely: Obviously you had learned your own coping mechanisms. What were they?

Adam: I don’t remember things very well so I have to make a lot of lists. It’s difficult in terms of reading so I have to write a lot of outlines. I have to be very structured in my approach to information because I have to be logical in the way things play out. I think I have a knack for structure, probably as a result of that. I have to progress logically in order to remember things. If I had to remember the things I wrote, I’d really be in trouble. One of the reasons I’m a television writer, more than a features writer, is because I need deadlines; it’s having a specific deadline when a script is due or there’s a set production or prep date that’s very helpful to someone like me. Without them I can be easily distracted.

Neely: What did you major in?

Adam: Political Science. I managed to graduate and do okay without reading too much of the material. I probably skimmed it, for the most part. You can buy notes, you can take notes; I was smart enough to do well enough to get by.

Neely: Did you have any influences, either good or bad, when you were in school? Someone who encouraged you and thus motivated you? Or to the contrary, someone who discouraged you, and therefore motivated you?

Adam: No one encouraged me for obvious reasons.  I struggled in school with all kinds of things like grammar and basic sentence structure.  As a result I wrote as little as possible because I was so insecure about it.

Neely: What about literary influences? What did you read early on that has stayed with you?

Adam: I haven’t read a lot for the same reasons.  When I do, I like the mystery crime genre.  I appreciate Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake tremendously, and I’m sure the tone of “Lucky Rabbit” was influenced by them.

Neely: What are you reading now?

Adam: I’m a new father, and I’m reading The Road by Cormack McCarthy.  Not sure what that says about me.

Neely: Congratulations on the baby. Your first?

Adam: Yeah.

Neely: How does the baby change the work dynamic?

Adam: That’s a good question. We have a full time nanny. I was working and now I’m off. Right now my wife, who’s also a writer, is working full time; so I’m home more with the baby at present. We’re building a home office and I think when that’s done we’ll be able to get on a better schedule. We’ll be able to go off, close the door, and have some time to focus. Right now it’s all pretty much about the baby and then the work obligations. There hasn’t been a lot of time spent on just writing new material and I’d like to get back to that. We’re just making this up as we go and really enjoying our time with the baby. If we’re erring, we’re erring on the side of giving him as much attention as we can. He’s finally sleeping through the night, so now it’s really about us trying to focus our attention again. Even though I think we’re both really tired, you never realize how fatigued you are. Just being with the baby and picking him up and playing with him, it’s a different kind of an exhaustion – a very happy exhaustion. But really, we both sit around at night and turn on the television and try to catch up a little bit on our DVR and both of us say “we should be writing something or we should be on the treadmill.” For most parents, there’s a list of the things you should be doing. You can also make the argument that just watching some television is important to our jobs. We’re just trying to figure it out as we go.

Neely: Welcome to the greatest journey you’re ever going to take. To paraphrase one of my favorite lines in film “Fasten your seatbelts everyone, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.” Who does your wife write for?

Adam: She’s on “The Vampire Diaries.” Her name is Elizabeth Craft. She and her writing partner, Sarah Fain, are supervising a pilot right now.  A few years ago they had a show called “The Women’s Murder Club” that was on ABC. She’s been on “Angel” and “Dollhouse” with Joss Whedon. She and Sarah had a deal at Fox and now they have a deal at Warner Brothers.

Neely: I noticed that Elizabeth and Sarah were also on “The Shield.” Is that where you met her?

Adam: Yup.

Neely: That’s very romantic – the romance, not “The Shield.”

Adam: Yes, it was.

Neely: How did you end up in LA?

Adam: I was born here.

Neely: So you wanted to stay in town?

Adam: Yeah. I never really thought about going away. My family’s all here and we’re pretty close. I didn’t do that well in high school, well enough, but I didn’t have any real plans. I applied to UCLA almost as a fluke and wound up getting in. I was always going to go to college – my parents were really insistent on that – but based on my academic performance, I didn’t consider myself to have a lot of options just because I was a B+ student. It wound up working out.

Neely: So often, people who grew up here fell under the “entertainment” influence early on. Was this environment an influence on your choices? What about your parents? What do they do?

Adam: My parents are retired. They weren’t in the industry. My father worked at a finance company; my mom worked at a department store. Coming from Whittier, working in the entertainment industry was the equivalent of getting a job on the dark side of the moon. It was really nothing I had ever considered. I just kind of fell into it. When I was at UCLA, opportunities presented themselves. I always pursued the thing that I thought would be the most fun. If I give myself credit for anything, it was just not wanting to settle for something I didn’t think I’d enjoy. I just tried to find something challenging that I thought I would like to do.

Neely: What was your first job and how did you get it?

Adam: I was a page on “The Price is Right” on CBS.  I just applied after college.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I didn’t want a real job.

Neely: What was “The Price is Right” like and where did it lead?

Adam: It was fun for about 4 weeks and then it was the most redundant job you could have. They played the same soundtrack and when they played a certain song the crowd was supposed to be at a certain place in terms of getting in line, getting name tags, and being seated. It is a completely repetitive experience. It was on the CBS Television City lot when CBS was on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. I then wound up getting a job in the development department xeroxing scripts. It seemed like I was very close to television writing but I couldn’t have been farther. It did, however, start me on a path toward entertainment. From there I got a job on a desk at ICM. I had originally wanted an overview of the industry and that’s what led me to being a page, where I could bide my time and figure out what I wanted to do. And then when I got the job xeroxing, someone said if you really want to figure out the whole landscape, you should work on an agent’s desk. But I never had any inclination to being an agent or even a writer. It was all about me trying to figure out what part of the industry I wanted to be in. I always thought I wanted to be an executive but things didn’t work out that way.

Neely: How are things different now, compared to when you first got here?

Adam: Things feel younger.  People feel more disposable.  They are constantly cycling new people in, so my frames of reference feel very fluid.

Neely: Did you have any mentors along the way that helped push your career or steer you in a particular direction?

Adam: Yes, in the sense that I had supportive people who told me I had some talent. I’ve worked with writers who provided a good example of how writers should treat other writers, that kind of thing.

Neely: Let’s talk a bit about dreadful experiences, followed by great ones. What was your worst Hollywood experience?

Adam: I can’t be specific.  I’ve been on some shows where the upper level writers were assholes.  Horrible people.  Disrespectful and abusive.  No one you would want to be associated with.

Neely: And your best experience?

Adam: Still probably “The Shield.”  (laughs) Shawn Ryan is not that asshole upper level writer, by the way.  He’s a great guy, super talented.  That show was a great experience.  The more experiences I have after that show, the more I appreciate how unique it was (I was on The Shield for its last 5 seasons).

Neely: What are you watching on television right now? How about a recent film or films that you thought were terrific?

Adam: “Mad Men” is fantastic.  I don’t really watch a lot of television.  I watch something once, just to see what it’s like.  My wife watches a lot of reality television, so I see that.  Movies are a rarity since our baby was born.

Neely: Do you have any favorite films or TV shows from the past?

Adam: “Hill Street Blues” was a really big influence on me and that’s why I really started appreciating the kind of journey that television takes me on – those characters. Before that I think most of us were watching things like “Love Boat” as escapism. “The Sopranos,” obviously and “The Shield.” If I hadn’t been on “The Shield” I would have loved watching it as a fan. I think I can draw a line from “Hill Street Blues” to “The Shield” and it’s an interesting line in terms of the portrayal of law enforcement because they dealt with larger themes. That’s always the key – tell a story and have some characters and also address a theme – it makes it so much richer. Watching certain shows has made that very clear, at least in terms of the way I would approach other material. Those are some pretty seminal shows; “Homicide” as well. Character shows, interesting shows, smart shows.

Neely: What are you working on right now?

Adam: I just finished “The Walking Dead” on AMC.  It looks like I’m going to write a pilot.  It’s an Idea I really love.  My deal’s at Sony.  I think the plan is to write it now and then take it out as a script next year with them.

Neely: Do you have anything percolating for the future?

Adam: That, and I’m going to make a real effort to pursue some feature stuff this year.  I’ve been working on shows for a long time, and I’d like to try to tell some stories that have a clear beginning, middle, and end for a change.

Neely: Ideally I’d love for someone to take a second look here. This was a very different kind of casino show – unlike “Vegas” centered around a private eye, and “Las Vegas” with its “Hotel”-like soap opera approach.  Reno is featured so seldom, and it just seems so right for TV – The Biggest Little City in the World has big city corruption, small town politics, and a dusting of grit. Well, if not this, then something else – preferably by you. I really think you nailed the small stakes corruption and crime scenario.  Thanks for spending the time.

{jcomments on}

"Here I am paying big money to you writers and what for? All you do is change the words.” – Samuel Goldwyn


What: Raju Mattoo is about to get married and he has the yips about the marriage that was arranged by his mother. Brother Sunil “Sonny” Mattoo has just finished Med School and has decided he doesn’t want to be a doctor. Slow death by arsenic poisoning would be preferable to telling their parents - their father, the very accomplished Dr. Arjun Mattoo and their mother, the even more accomplished Dr. Sarita Mattoo - who are due to arrive for the wedding.

Who:  Raju Mattoo, a dentist, has committed to a marriage arranged by his mother to a woman he barely knows, Priyanka, an ObGyn from New Jersey. Having returned from his G-rated (censored and controlled by his mother) bachelor party in Las Vegas, he confesses his misgivings to his brother Sonny and best friend and dental practice partner Perry. He and Priyanka have not yet kicked the tires, so to speak. But much depends on this marriage, primarily for Sonny because, after finally finishing med school, he has decided that he cannot devote his life to something he hates. His live-in girlfriend Elizabeth, decidedly not Indian, fully supports his decision (actually she gives him a year). As yet, however, Sonny has not found a way to tell his parents of his decision; something that becomes more complicated when, unannounced, Drs. Arjun and Sarita Mattoo arrive on their doorstep, complete with manservant and boatloads of baggage, having cancelled their hotel in order to be closer to the family on the eve of the wedding..

Private space is invaded and nerves are beginning to shatter.

Int. Sonny & Elizabeth’s bedroom – Night.

Sarita enters without knocking.

Sarita: (Sotto, to Sonny) Why don’t you marry her? You have been together two years. Think of her reputation! (Then) You know we are sending Raju and his bride to Hawaii for a honeymoon.

Sonny: That’s very nice of you, but we –

Sarita: All expenses paid. A junior suite, ocean view. It will cost them nothing.

Sonny: You’re trying to bribe us into getting married?

Sarita: (To Elizabeth) I would happily send you and Sonny to Hawaii. Have you been there? Very nice.

Sonny: Ma, you can’t just make everyone do what you want them to...Go to sleep, please.

And no sooner to they get rid of Sarita than

Arjun enters wearing just his underwear, scratches his belly.

Arjun: So? Big day tomorrow?

Sonny: Maybe you should put something on.

Arjun: Govind is still unpacking my clothes. I’m not nude, you know. (To Elizabeth) In India there is a favorable bias toward the elders. Here, not so much.

Sonny: So… How’s Philadelphia? Same?

Arjun: Well, the Sixers are choking.

Sonny: (Herds him out) I haven’t been following… Well. It’s late, so…

As Arjun is ushered out, it is Elizabeth who points out

Elizabeth: Sonny, you’ll drive yourself crazy until they know.

Sonny: Let’s just get through the wedding. Okay? Please. I have a plan here. And it’s working. Everything in its time. Step one: Raju gets legally married to Priyanka, which gives my parents a reason to live. Step two: I write them a letter explaining that I’m not going to be a doctor. Step three: We move to Korea. Step four: I mail the letter from Korea. This is an airtight plan, baby. Airtight.

But of course complications ensue, as they do in all cases where every piece must interlock with every other. Priyanka, it turns out, also has the yips for the same “kicking the tires” reason as Raju. Though both parties have had numerous previous partners, it had been extremely important to both sets of parents that their relationship be consummated only after the ceremony – something that defied logic for both Priyanka and Raju because sexual compatibility was too great a question to leave unanswered. Aided by Elizabeth and Sonny, desperate for their own reasons that the wedding take place, Priyanka and Raju clandestinely consummate their relationship in the back seat of Sonny’s car – romantic only in the way illicit sex can be.

Of course it’s no surprise that the carefully constructed house of cards collapses. Having agreed to wear the traditional achkan and paggadi (white wedding suit and turban), Raju refuses to enter the ceremony on the traditional white horse. As Sarita berates Raju for his lack of decorum and inadequacy as a son, Raju reveals that Sonny is not the saint she paints him as he will not be continuing on to his residency.

The Priest, ever chanting, ties a garland of flowers around Raju and Priyanka’s hands, joining them.

Sarita: Something is wrong. This is not like you. Did you take pot?

Sonny: I didn’t take pot, ma.

Sarita: You are ruining your life! (To Arjun) He is ruining his life!

***

Raju: (Proud) You’ve still got one son who’s a doctor. That’s gotta feel good, right?

Arjun: You are not a doctor.

Raju: I am a doctor!

Sonny: Nothing wrong with not being a doctor.

Raju: I’m a doctor!

Sonny: Ma, it’s my life!

Sarita: Who told you that? I gave birth to you, you belong to me. And now your children will have to beg for food!

Sonny looks to Elizabeth for help.

Elizabeth: (Thumbs up) Airtight.

At a loss, impulsively, Sonny points to Raju.

Sonny: Raju and Priyanka had sex! Premaritally. How about that!?!

Priyanka gasps. The Priest keeps chanting. Raju looks at Priyanka’s father, who does not seem happy in the least.

Arjun: (Hits Raju) What?! Is this true?

Sonny: In a car, by the way.

Raju: (Re: Sonny) Sonny has pre-marital sex all the time.

Arjun: We will deal with Sunil, trust me. We’re talking about (pokes him) you. Have you no shame? Did you go to see the bride before it was allowed?

All eyes go to Raju.

Raju: (swallows) Yes.

For defiling the purity of the bride, a scandalized murmur moves through the crowd. Raju points accusingly at Priyanka, awkward since their hands are joined by the garland.

Raju: But it was her idea!

But parents (not all parents) will sometimes surprise you.

Arjun: (Makes sure Sarita’s gone) You made a good decision.

Sonny: (WHAT?) What?

Arjun: I didn’t work all these years in America so my eldest son would be miserable in his career. You should be happy in life. That is my goal.

Sonny: But you called me an idiot.

Arjun: For your mother’s benefit. If I said that I agreed with you, there would be war. No man wants war with his wife. Remember this. You might have a wife one day. (Winks at Elizabeth) Soon.

Sonny: Wow, Pop. That means a lot to me.

Arjun: You understand, publicly I must continue to condemn you.

No Meaner Place: Combining family relationship comedy with culture clash should have been a sure thing. Family sturm und drang has been the meat and potatoes of comedy and tragedy since the Greeks (and probably before), so no new ground is expected to be broken. But adding cultural differences to the mix is an always new and unexpected twist, and in this case, exploring Indian culture brings out the differences, but also highlights the similarities in the dynamic. The high educational and career expectations within Indian society, especially within the group that has immigrated to the U.S. for increased opportunity is very reminiscent of several other immigrant cultures, most notably the wave of Jewish immigrants who arrived on our shores at the end of the 19th century. Education was, of course, the primary path to success; a success that was judged by the final profession, usually medicine and sometimes legal. Relying on stereotype (and comedy is dependent upon it), achieving anything less than those two professions was deemed, if not failure, at least not success.  I wonder how Max and Jennie Siegelbaum felt when their son Ben (Bugsy) went into hotel management instead of education like his brothers and sisters?

We are beginning to see actors of South Asian descent represented on the small screen, notably in the comedies “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” as well as in dramas such as “The Good Wife.” Are we not willing to explore our similarities and differences? There is comedy to be mined (see “Bend it Like Beckham”) and that is what we need more than ever – comedy.

Life Lessons for Writers: When they say they want something out of the box, what they really want is something that will fit into a box, is about white families with a (very limited) smattering of ethnically diverse friends and neighbors, and comes tied with a ribbon – preferably one made in New Harmony and not in New Delhi.

Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: What part of your psyche did this come from? I know your family; I’ve met your parents and they are lovely people. Who were those people in the pilot???

Ajay: Those people are direct analogs to my parents and how they have behaved and reacted to certain things in my life. I think I was supposed to be a doctor. I know that from the time I was very young I always said I was going to be a doctor and that probably wasn’t something that came out of nowhere. I was probably told. My mother’s a doctor and my dad’s an engineer. There are a lot of doctors in the family. I even went to pre-med for a couple of years in college and then failed out as a result.

Neely: You were at UCLA, weren’t you?

Ajay: Yeah. There was just a lack of interest on my part. I think that the idea that I would become a writer was not, and probably still hasn’t been accepted by my parents. And then that I didn’t marry an Indian girl was, in the beginning, going to be a problem. Now they love Kelli and everything (note: Kelli Williams, one of the stars on the David Kelley series entitled “The Practice” and currently starring in “Lie to Me.”). But back then it was not a great time – including when I told them “I think this is the girl for me.” So yeah, a lot of it comes from my life – it’s autobiographical. This is how my parents behaved. These are things my parents said. I might have brightened the colors here and there, but this is them.

Neely: Do you have any siblings?

Ajay: I have a younger brother who’s a doctor.

Neely: (laughs) How much younger?

Ajay: Two years younger.

Neely: Okay, so that made it even more difficult. Did he marry an Indian girl?

Ajay: No. He was pressured even more than I was, but his way of rebelling was that he didn’t become the kind of a doctor they approved of. He became a criminal forensic psychiatrist. He doesn’t ever deal with saving lives or curing diseases or even treating people.

Neely: So it’s nothing they can explain to the folks back home.

Ajay: They cannot. He has an M.D. but that’s about it. He’s more like a legal/behavioral psychologist than a doctor; but he’s trained in medicine.

Neely: Where does he live?

Ajay: Studio City, near me. We all live in the same area. He has a kid and a wife and we’re all close.

Neely: Well, in keeping with the autobiographical elements in the script, I can definitely see the parallels to your very accepting and level-headed wife Kelli. By the way, the hilarious scene where Elizabeth was trying to wear a sari… anything like that happen the first time Kelli tried to wear one?

Ajay: I seem to recall a time when Kelli was wearing a lot of saris, right around the time we got married and she… well let me say, they’re not easy things to assemble. So I do remember something like that, but a lot of it came out of wanting a “cute” way to introduce the girl in the pilot.

Neely: I remember Kelli wearing a particularly beautiful sari to the Golden Globes one year (possibly 1998 or ’99).

Ajay: I remember that. I remember that sari. My mother was thrilled that she was wearing a sari on TV. She called all her friends to pay extra special attention.

Neely: At that point, how long had you been married?

Ajay: We got married in ’96, so a couple of years.

Neely: Right at the start of “The Practice.”

Ajay: I think we got married and then she did the pilot.

 

Neely: One of the things that I recall when I asked her about the sari was how appreciative she was of it and how her mother-in-law had given it to her and how thrilled she was to be wearing it. Kelli, no doubt, was extremely accommodating to your parents.

Ajay: Yes, she was.

Neely: That must have won them over.

Ajay: Yes. No offense intended, but Kelli’s, a WASP from Bel Air and didn’t have much of a culture, so I think she dove into accepting and assimilating into our Indian/American culture. The alternative was dinner at the Bel Air Country Club and that wasn’t that interesting to her.

Neely: Well, just going back over the models for this story, I can see that there’s something endless to tap into.

Ajay: I knew a lot of Indian kids, and have come to meet even more since – American kids with Indian parents, like me. All the stories are the same. Everybody who read this, auditioned for it, or came in for it in one way or another all said the same thing, “I don’t know if I’m going to get the part, but this is my family. This is great. I never see my family on television.” I imagine that it’s an immigrant story, too. It may be about Indians, and the details may be specific to Indians, but I imagine the American kid growing up in Michigan whose parents were Hmong immigrants has the same sort of stories.

Neely: It’s the same story told in “Funny in Farsi.” It was Nastaran Dibai’s story as well as that of the original author, Firoozeh Dumas. In adapting the book, Nastaran tapped into her own Iranian immigrant stories. It’s pretty universal.

Neely: There was a similar script and produced prior to this. What was it called?

Ajay: It vacillated between “Nevermind Nirvana” and “Nirvana” and “Nearly Nirvana.” They’re all kind of generally the same thing.

Neely: It was at NBC originally. Do you see the irony in NBC picking up a comedy that takes place in an outsourced Indian tech center? Could it have interfered with your casting?

Ajay: Actually we were ahead of them. Ken Kwapis, who directed that pilot, and I had a very open relationship. We kind of faced each other going, “It’s all the same actors.” But we didn’t have actors that were testing at the same time. Our actors were maybe going to go in and test for them, but we got them first. Yes, there was competition, but I think it’s an interesting area. There’s a really funny actor named Parvesh Cheena who tested for us and didn’t get it who went into that show. I think he’s going to be a big star because he’s really funny. NBC apparently wanted to do an Indian show, but I’m not sure why; maybe because India is an ascendant culture in a way.

Neely: I was a bit confused about that show. I checked the credits for the 2nd episode on Studio System and it looks like they cut a number of the Indian actors, including Cheena. Judging by what I saw, it’s now much more heavily weighted toward the Anglo actors and less about the Indians, which is sort of strange since India, besides being an ascendant culture is huge. There are a lot of Indian/Americans here. It’s not a small population in the U.S.

Ajay: That wasn’t the case when I was a kid.

Neely: What was it like? You grew up in L.A. didn’t you?

Ajay: Yeah. There was no one. We knew every Indian family in L.A; that’s how small it was. It’s huge, it’s exploded. Now everyone kind of stays within its own group, like the Gujuratis stay with the Gujuratis and the Punjabis stay with the Punjabis. But back then it was just everybody, altogether.

Neely: What are your parents?

Ajay: My parents are Punjabis.

Neely: So, who directed the pilot this time around?

Ajay: Scott Ellis. Scott is a theater director from New York (Associate Artistic Director of the Roundabout Theatre Co.) who also directs shows like “Weeds” and “Nurse Jackie” and “30 Rock.” Come to think of it, maybe he’s a TV director who also directs theater, I don’t know. He’s a very nice guy and very good with actors. The decisions about how directors get hired for pilots are opaque and crazy. I don’t know how these guys get on a list. I would have assumed they’d talk to David Schwimmer again (the director of the last pilot), but they wanted to go with Scott and I found him really nice and really great to work with. I liked the work he had done previously.

Neely: Did he get the timing?

Ajay: Yes he did. I don’t know if you’ve watched “Nurse Jackie,” but it can be a really funny show and I think that is largely to do with him executing very precise scripts very well.  So I thought that it worked.

Neely: Because, as they say, timing is everything in comedy (and in everything else).

Ajay: “Nevermind Nirvana” was a multi-camera show. Even though there are more Indian characters in shows now, especially one on the very successful multi-camera show “The Big Bang Theory,” there’s not a big tradition of Indians in this specialized field.

Neely: They’re all supposed to be doctors.

Ajay: Right! So where are you going to get them? If I was casting the part of the janitor on “Scrubs” eight years ago, I’d have end up with Neil Flynn because he was the funniest guy of the 50 guys who were funny. In my show, we didn’t have that kind of choice. We had a hard time casting it.

Neely: Did you look in England?

Ajay: We did. We got a lot of English actors auditioning. None of the men got particularly close on the guy roles; there were a couple of women that did. I suppose it’s very hard to do an American accent and concentrate on being funny.

Neely: The same thing is true for white English actors who haven’t done American before. They’re concentrating so much on their American accents that they miss the nuance.

What about the finished product? What did you think?

Ajay: To be honest, I wasn’t happy with it. I can’t point my finger in any direction. It would be very easy for me to say “This actor ruined it” or “Their notes ruined it” or the director or even myself because maybe it was the script. There’s this thing that can happen where a really good script turns into a so-so show and there’s no explanation. Sometimes the reverse is true and a so-so script turns into a really funny show with no explanation. It’s strange. I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out that math, and I’ve given up trying to figure it out. I thought that maybe there was some “magic.” If I could only tap into that well, but I can’t. I wasn’t happy with the finished product, but I still don’t know exactly why. It just didn’t turn out that funny.

Neely: I’m sorry that I didn’t get a chance to read its predecessor.

Ajay: I can send it to you. You know, this is the third time it was made.

Neely: I remember when you and David Schwimmer and a couple of other guys anted up the money on the last go round so that you could reshoot some things.

Ajay: We made the first one for NBC in a traditional way. The pilot got shot, got tested; and then they said “Let’s replace the lead. Everything else works.” The lead scored very very poorly. Easier said than done because there aren’t a lot of Indian/American actors that are funny. I had Kal Penn.

Neely: They didn’t like Kal Penn???

Ajay: No, America didn’t like Kal Penn; meaning the “testing” didn’t like Kal Penn. Kal Penn, while being very funny in the movies probably didn’t have a lot of stage experience at the time; and it was a stage show. There’s a little bit of a learning curve. Right or wrong, things get blamed on actors sometimes. Actors get fired at table readings, as if that’s the problem and not the script. We went through an exhaustive search to find someone to replace Kal Penn and we came up with a comedian. Remember, we’d already searched everywhere. Anyway, we came up with another guy, a stand up comic named Arj Barker, who ended up recurring on “Flight of the Conchords.” A very funny guy, but not an actor; he’s a stand-up. So we were shut down and then two days later I was playing the part. By this time we had spent everything but $200,000, so Schwimmer, who was directing, and everyone else, including me, kicked back our fees and we shot it in hopes of trying to sell it. We had something, but in the end the thought was that if a stand up comedian couldn’t do it, how could a writer who’s never acted do it.

Anyway, Kevin Reilly liked it sufficiently. He had always thought about it, so when he went to Fox and the circumstances were right, he said “Let’s try it again.” So, essentially, I wrote a new script; mostly the same characters with a new character added here and there. We kept a couple of the original cast members and the rest were new people because it had been six years since we had done the original. We shot it and it became like a regular pilot again. But you know the story of pilots is that they generally just stay pilots.

Neely: So there’s nothing you could think that you could redo.

Ajay: I’ve redone it so many times; I suppose I could go in and say “Let’s make some different casting choices; let’s make another director choice; let’s go back to the script draft that everyone liked.” But in performance, at table readings and run-throughs, it’s all going to get changed by the very nature of the beast. “They” demand a certain amount, no, rather they expect a certain amount of constant change. “We can beat this. We can make it better. It was funny on Tuesday; it’s not funny on Thursday – reach into your big bucket of things and put something funny in there.” For their purposes, it works sometimes. Using your example, they made “Gary Unmarried,” a script you didn’t care for, into something that was funny enough to get on the air. That churning machine is what they live by.

Neely: Let’s talk some more about the pilot development process.

Ajay: The process of making a pilot itself is like 40 people staring at a surgeon when he’s trying to do surgery, with all of them going “what if you did this.” And saying obvious things like, “Hey, we should probably not let him die.” That kind of thing. What can you do? The process is the process.

Neely: Yes, but one of the counterproductive elements in that process is that many times the least experienced development execs, the ones who’ve just been taken off an assistant’s desk, get to weigh in with equal force. Sure, they’ve read a lot of scripts in the previous few years, but they don’t have a larger context and have no history. I’m trying not to be too harsh, but that is exactly what a beginning development executive is. You have 40 people involved in the process, all of whom want to put in their two cents worth so that their bosses think that they’re really smart because they came up with something, anything…

Ajay: …that they’re engaged and they’re earning their salary. I know. It’s kind of a broken system.

Neely: But it’s especially counterproductive for funny.

Ajay: I agree.

Neely: I get the feeling that you’re not done with this story.

Ajay: If I was given the chance to make it again, I would make it again. I don’t know how, but I still think it’s worth while. I just think that it’s going to be a long time, if ever, before anyone agrees because I’ve already done it three times.

Neely: Have you given any consideration to going international? This is as much a natural for British TV as it is for Indian TV. Think of the huge potential audience on Indian TV. We always talk about thinking globally but rarely do.

Ajay: I don’t know what the economics would be and I don’t know how it would work. But the Indian TV business as I understand it, is geared toward the ladies in the villages who buy the soap and watch the…

Neely: …telenovelas.

Ajay: Exactly. I don’t know. I would love to try it but I don’t know how to get from here to there.

Neely: I think it would be worth the investigation. It really is a huge huge market. Or think about British TV. They’ve got an even larger Indian market. This would be perfect on the smaller scale that they work with – limited episodes. Two potential contacts might be Paul Lee, the new head of ABC who started BBC America and Lee Bartlett, who was just hired at Discovery Networks, and just arrived back in the States after several years heading production at ITV. I understand BBC America is interested in cross-programming, creating shows here that will work on BBC here and in Britain. British television seems like an absolute natural.

Ajay: I would have to figure out how to do it. Right now I’m in the “hangover” stage. It’s sort of like “How dead can I make this show?” So far, I’ve made it dead three times. But that is a very good idea.

Neely: There’s a show there. Maybe the U.S. is the wrong market. It may still be worth kicking this allegedly dead horse.

Ajay: You may have a point.

 

Neely: Let’s talk some more about your roots. Unlike me, who is first generation only on my mother’s side, you are a double first generation.

Ajay: Both of my parents came to California in the 60’s. My mother followed my father, whose work was in aerospace. In the 60s in Southern California, aerospace was a really big deal; he was an engineer, and that’s where the work was. They became citizens as soon as they were eligible. So yeah, we’re Southern Californians.

Neely: How much family do you still have in India?

Ajay: My father’s family is quite large. He had 9 brothers and sisters. My mother’s sister lives here; both of her parents, now deceased, moved here, so she doesn’t have a big family over there. But I think if I went with my family I’d have free places to stay in a few towns.

Neely: Have you been?

Ajay: The only time Kelli and I went to India was after “The Practice” pilot was shot and picked up but before it started shooting. We haven’t gone with our kids, but now our youngest is at an age where I think it would be fun to go – he’s 7. Now he’ll remember it. We didn’t want to take him when he was 3 and waste all that money and have him say “I don’t remember.”

Neely: You were a Valley boy and went to Buckley. Were you conflicted about bringing your friends home?

Ajay: No. My friends were my good friends and they knew who my parents were; it was no problem. We had to do some more intricate lying to my parents for me to get out of the house on a Saturday night and go and do the “Less than Zero” style things that we did. But we didn’t not lie to the other parents either.

 

Neely: As you said before, you went to UCLA.

Ajay: Like I mentioned, I failed out as a pre-med biology major. I just wasn’t interested or engaged. I went to the Dean and explained that I really wanted to be a writer and that I had started in the wrong direction and would he please give me another chance. We worked something out so that I got back in and then I was an English major in Creative Writing and did very well. It was a good change.

 

Neely: Any particularly inspirational teachers?

Ajay: There was a guy named Brian Moore who was a novelist, and my professor Carolyn See, the novelist and memoirist – she was great. She was highly influential and very supportive and I think she’s just fantastic. She’s just one of a kind. I mean this in the nicest way, but she was always weird, and great, and upbeat and encouraging and fought against the dominant Southern California image of writers as being there to report on a vacuous vacant land. Though I think she admired some of those people, she wasn’t going to change her approach. For her to have made the career that she has is amazing to me. Even then I knew it, but she’s still her own person.

Neely: You have to read her memoir Dreaming.

Ajay: I have it, but I haven’t yet read it. I’ve probably read some of it and then something got me away. Once I had kids, there’s been a giant gap in my reading. Now I’m back.

Neely: It’s one of the most hilariously horrific books I’ve ever read. When I put the book down, I turned to my husband and said “I’m not complaining about my mother ever again.” (I doubt whether I’ll keep that promise, but it was meaningful at the time.)

Going backwards just a bit; so it was in college that you found that you wanted to be a writer?

Ajay: Yes. Someone I knew beginning in junior high and who became a very close friend of mine in high school was Bret Ellis. He’s still one of my closest and oldest friends. Bret always knew he wanted to be a writer but what he was doing was strange and none of us really understood what it was. But he got his book published when he was 20! It opened the door for a lot of people – a lot of people who were his friends and classmates. For me it made it all possible. I couldn’t believe you could actually do that for a living. Bret was a great example that you could just do it.

Neely: How about mentors along the way? It sounds like Carolyn was one.

Ajay: Carolyn was one. She was always very supportive. Brian Moore, less so, but he was a great teacher. After I graduated as an English major, I took a year off and then went to film school at UCLA for an MFA in screenwriting. The teachers there were really good. Richard Walter, Lew Hunter, Hal Ackerman – they weren’t mentors so much, but they were people who helped. I’ve never really had mentors, but I have had some good teachers.

Neely: I just read this in an issue of “Written by” and I thought it was particularly astute. Number 88 of 101 Things I Learned in Film School by Neil Landau with Matthew Frederick was: “If you want to write, read. If you want to make films, see films.” So what are you reading right now and what have you seen recently that you liked?

Ajay: I tend to be segregated over towards kid films…

Neely: Funny thing about having kids.

Ajay: …and movies that come through the mail during screening time. That’s when I get to watch that kind of thing. So November/December is coming up and then Kelli and I can catch up on all the films that have come out.  So, movies are not a great example. But I’m reading a lot. I read a book called The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow. I was on vacation recently and read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, and now Four Fish by Paul Greenberg which is a book I recently got on my iPad. This iPad thing, while kind of gimmicky, has increased the number of books that I read. It’s just so easy to carry around and have 10 books at once. I’m reading a book right now called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, but that’s because someone wants to make a TV show out of it and it’s a possible job.

Neely: The one thing that’s kept me from getting any of those devices, and certainly the iPad, is that it seems too much like a computer screen and it hurts my eyes to read on a computer screen.

Ajay: For me I’m the opposite. With the iPad I don’t have to wear my reading glasses; I can zoom in. When Kelli’s going to sleep, our biggest argument always starts with “will you turn off the light.” She has to go to bed and I want to read late; this way I can just read in bed. Also, I can take it with me and I’ve got 10 books on there so if I’m bored with one, I’m not forced to finish it, I can go to the next one.

 

Neely: What about directing?  Still interested in doing that?

Ajay: I am. I made one film in 2000 that was a longish short.

Neely: “It’s a Shame about Ray;” I went to the screening. It seemed to be about your feelings about Kelli and agonizing over worthiness.

Ajay: It was about living your life when you can live it and not waiting around. It was a good general theme for a movie. Do it while you can do it; be what you can be when you can be it and not when it’s too late.

Neely: I loved it because I spent far too many years agonizing over whether I was worthy of my husband.

Ajay: I understand…it’s not a way to live.

Neely: You’re right, it’s counterproductive. It’s one of those things where you just have to throw your hands up and say “Okay. This is the way it is, and I don’t get it, but who cares.” But that takes a lot of time or a lot of therapy.

Ajay: Letting go of preconceived notions of how you think things are going to go opens you up to how things actually go.

Neely: Sorry for the sidetrack. And directing?

Ajay: Since then I haven’t had any opportunity. I’ve been in the grind of trying to make money to feed these private school tuitions and everything else that goes on. But yes, of course I’d love to and still have those aspirations and still write things toward that end. There was one thing that I wrote for a friend who’s a producer and if it ever gets made, I’ll be able to direct it. It’s a hard road, but it’s nothing I can pursue full time right now. I have to write three pilots this year because they’re still hiring me to write pilots, so that’s what I’m going to do until they kick me out.

Neely: How did and Kelli meet.

Ajay: We knew each other because we were all part of the same circle of friends. I think the first time I met her, she came over to pick up my then-live-in girlfriend for a girls night out. A few years later, when we were both single, I invited her to my book publication party.

Neely: I didn’t know you’d written a novel.  Tell me about it.

Ajay: It’s not a very good novel; it was my first book, written when I was in my 20s. It’s called Pool and is no longer in print but you could probably find it somewhere for a penny on Amazon. It takes place on a movie set. It answers the question of what might happen if, say a huge actor like a Johnny Depp, while in the middle of filming a “Pirates of the Caribbean,” disappeared and didn’t show up to work. What machinations would take place in the movie business because this giant juggernaut is dependent on this one guy and this one guy decided that he wasn’t coming in to work that day and decided instead to go to, in this case, Vermont and hang out with some friends. Essentially they rewrite the movie, move it to Vermont and the mountain comes to Mohammed.

Neely: Actually you’re being a tad too self-deprecating. The lowest price at which it can be found is $10 and it was extremely well-reviewed. I quote The Washington Post Book world: ”A faultlessly crafted, beautifully constructed, Beckett-in-a-hot-tub, Noel-Coward-on-ludes, Hunter-Thompson-with-an-editor novel.” Have you written any more books since then?

Ajay: I’ve written a lot of short fiction and a novel, which I’m still working on but don’t think it’s publishable yet; I’ve been working on it, on and off, for 10 years. I’m also writing a work of non-fiction that’s in the experiential genre that authors do for a year. It should be done in the next couple of months.

Neely: Besides pilots, anything else? Do you have an overall?

Ajay: I wish. They don’t really make them that often anymore, and they almost always include a staffing component, which is difficult in my case since I have literally no experience working on someone else’s show. What I end up doing is I write scripts for whatever network and do it with their sister studio. Generally I pitch something that I would like to write. I’m going to pitch something today at 3:00 and if they like the idea, like me and want to work with me, well that’s kind of how it works.

 

Neely: I don’t want to make you late for your meeting. Thanks for taking the time today. I can’t wait to read more from you.  Please say hi to the family for me.

{jcomments on}

“Don't worry, don't worry. Look at the Astors and the Vanderbilts, all those big society people. They were the worst thieves - and now look at them. It's just a matter of time.” – Meyer Lansky


What: Fidel Castro is dead and Cuba is about to undergo a major re-transformation.

Who: Joe Avoca, 29, has major plans to move up in the mob despite his father Al’s interference. When Al suffers a heart attack in the office of big boss Bobby, it is revealed that he was wearing a wire and heads roll, or more specifically, Bobby and many of his “associates” land in prison.  Joe, anxious to distance himself from his father, the rat, visits Bobby in prison to profess his loyalty.  Bobby gives him an assignment – the mob has an interest in a liberated Cuba and is anxious to return to its Havana gambling roots, but in order to do that, they must obtain the deed to the old Colon Hotel and Casino previously placed in the name of Meyer Lansky’s accountant Saul Lerner, now living in a retirement village in Florida and unwilling to cooperate. But Saul has a weak spot, his grandson Ben; and Ben has a weak spot, a major gambling debt.  Joe buys the paper on Ben and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Terrified, it is up to Ben to convince his grandfather to go along with Joe’s plan and turn the deed over to the mob.  Joe arranges passage for the three of them to Havana where Saul’s lawyer Rachel explains the new rules and regulations on the transfer of property back to the original owners. She takes them to inspect the property.


The faded façade of a five-story colonial building. Rusted wrought-iron balconies ring boarded-up windows. Columns lead down to a series of arches at street level, where the Thunderbird pulls up and parks. They exit the car.

Joe: Not as big as I thought.

Saul: We weren’t running a Howard Johnson’s. We only catered to the high rollers. Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra, Vice President Nixon…

Joe steps in front of Saul and Ben and enters the building.

The spacious lobby is bereft of furniture. Paint is peeling from the moldy walls onto a red rug that’s threadbare in patches.

Joe: What a shithole.

Saul heads down the corridor toward an archway. Ben follows.

Ben: Pop-pop, you alright?

Saul doesn’t respond. He opens a latticed door into:

A massive, ornately carved bar dominates the wood-paneled room.  Saul points toward a large marlin mounted behind the bar.

Saul: Know who caught that? Ernest Hemingway. Said it inspired him to write The Old Man and the Sea. Course there were five other marlins hanging above five other bars he said the same thing about.

Walking down the hallways, they discover that at least 50 people are living in the hotel and this may be the deal breaker. For although the lawyer is able to get the paperwork filed on Saul’s behalf, nothing can be done until the residents are paid off and relocated.  Things also become much more complicated for Joe when he discovers that Bobby has sent down one of his henchmen, Tommy aka Golden Boy, to take over the operation from Joe. As soon as the deed is in their hands, Joe is to cut the Lerners loose, preferably on the high seas.

Saul, nostalgic, takes Ben on a sightseeing tour of the island, to all the places from his youth, including the beach he owned, the place where Ben’s father was conceived. Ben informs his grandfather that he wants to stay and work at the casino, something Saul points out as being akin to the fox watching the henhouse, given Ben’s gambling problem.  Upon returning to their hotel, Saul is disturbed; someone has rifled his things. Joe, furious at their disappearance is even more upset to hear that not only does Ben plan on staying, but Saul will as well.

Ben: You don’t have to stay on my account.

Saul: You know I’d always be worrying. (to Joe) Assuming we can make a deal, I’m willing to keep my name on the casino.

Joe: We’ll see. Things have changed.

Saul: Since when?

Joe: We’re looking for another way to get a gaming license. A loophole.

Saul: Suit yourself. But Mr. Lansky used to say the only way you don’t make money in the casino business is by breaking the law. You need me… Who decided this?

Joe: Us guys from Chicago

Saul: I’ll bet. You’re not calling the shots anymore, are you?

Joe, not as smart as he thinks, is still smarter than most give him credit for.  When he and Tommy decide to clear out the tenants, the payment is in bullets not dollars; but complications ensue and Joe is left standing and Tommy’s body finds its way into the trunk of Joe’s car.  And Ben’s life has become more complicated when he’s seduced by an FBI agent who wants him to be their inside-man at the casino. The catch – he mustn’t tell his grandfather because, unbeknown to Ben, Saul was much more than Lansky’s accountant; and 300 million of Lansky’s assets are still missing with Saul the only lead as to their location.

No Meaner Place: Colville has written an unabashed gangster series, one relying on the inherent distrust between the Chicago mob and the old time Jewish mafia – no allegory, no post modern twists – just a juicy “Godfather” series with double and triple crosses predicated on the fantasy of a post-Castro Cuba returning to the “good old days” of Batista and the rule of the wealthy Cuban Americans from Miami.  The image of Lansky deported from Israel back to Miami Beach is ever present with Saul as the heir apparent. Thanks to the greed of the Chicago element, Saul has been able to orchestrate all of the events and re-imagine a bright new future for himself and his favorite grandson.

Saul pays a visit to his lawyer Rachel to fill in some details on what brought him to Havana after all these years.  Joe had paid him a visit in Florida and indicated that unless he cooperated with the Chicagoans he would use the best leverage he had – Ben and his debt. Saul still refused to cooperate.

Rachel: How could you do that? You had to know he’d go after Ben.

Saul: I was counting on it.

Saul begins moving bricks of cash from the suitcase to her desk.

Saul: Ben’s life was going nowhere. I figured he could use a change of scenery.

Rachel: Yeah, Joe could’ve put him in the hospital.

Saul: Joe’s not as dumb as he looks. He knows Ben’s the only leverage he’s got on me.

Rachel: why not just tell Ben how you felt?

Saul: Nobody listens to an old man. At this age, I can’t twist their arms either. I needed Ben to come to the decision on his own. If you let people think it’s their idea, they don’t notice you pulling the strings. (then) Just like I dropped hints so you’d figure out how to get the casino back.

Rachel sits back, sighs. Saul’s been playing them all.

Saul: Do you know what I lost here? If there’d never been a Castro we’d have made billions. Instead we got tossed out on our asses, and when we came home Bobby Kennedy made things miserable for us. My life in America was nothing like it could’ve been in Cuba. (beat) Now Castro dies and all of a sudden I’m back in the game. Only I don’t have a lot of years left, so I’m thinking of my legacy. Not just property, but my way of life. I sure as hell can’t pass it on to my son, the self-righteous prick. But Benjamin’s more like me. A Macher. He’s gonna be my heir. My successor.

Rachel: Why are you telling me this?

Saul: You’re my lawyer. I know you can’t tell anyone else. (beat) And in case something happens to me, I want Benjamin to know everything.

Rachel: I think you should tell him now.

Saul: He’s not ready. Not yet.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always loved gangster films, loved the first few seasons of “The Sopranos,” and long for another show that pits old school against new school with a fight to the finish.  And what could be better than youthful innocence corrupted or the triumph of good over evil (better yet, the triumph of evil over the so-called forces of good – much more interesting)?  Turning this down was a big mistake and all I can say are three words: “Try Chris Albrecht.”

Life Lessons for Writers:  Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Conversation with the Writer

Neely: Where did this come from?

Andrew: It's funny but in an earlier conversation you mentioned Eastern Europe and that's actually how this started.  I had a friend in film school whose parents were from Serbia and they were trying to get back some property that was confiscated by the Yugoslavian communists. That got me to thinking. Where are some other places where this might happen and what would someone be trying to get back? So I went through that in my head and I came up with Cuba. I started thinking about the heyday in Cuba under Batista and, well, okay how about a casino? Who would have owned a casino, and the answer to that would be the American Mob. So, whose name would it have been in? You start from point A (Yugoslavia, now Serbia) and little by little you get to point E (a Cuban casino) - miles apart, but related.

So then I started researching that pre-Castro timeframe and discovered that Meyer Lansky really ran the show, something that fascinated me because the Jewish mob no longer exists.

Neely: Written from pitch or on spec?

Andrew: This was purely spec. It was written to be (and is) a staffing sample, which gave me more freedom to write what I wanted and go in my own direction.

Neely: Other than “The Sopranos,” the only mob-themed television series I can think of off hand was “Wise Guy” in the 80s. What were your influences?

Andrew: I had been kicking this idea around in my head since around 2002; then a few years later my wife suggested I read American Tabloid by James Ellroy. The novel takes place in the year before John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Cuba looms large even though almost none of it is set in Cuba.   The mob, the refugees, the CIA – they all hate Castro.  Ellroy makes a very convincing case that a combination of these groups killed Kennedy; Cuba was important enough for them to assassinate a president.  I love the style and the heartlessness of the writing.

Another influence was the film “Pickup on South Street” directed by Sam Fuller. I love the Richard Widmark character.  He’s a petty thief who has unwittingly stolen a piece of microfilm, so everyone is after him – the police, the FBI, the mob, the spies.  He’s a cocky loner; I like him as a model for Joe. I’m a big soccer fan, so I also modeled Joe after this soccer player named Cristiano Ronaldo who works hard and is the best but he’s clearly only out for himself. The mob is a social organization that punishes people who stick their heads up. Despite that, Joe will survive and even excel for them, especially because his Chicago mob is so diminished; but he’ll become more and more isolated and become harder to deal with.

“The Sopranos” was an obvious influence. It casts a huge shadow; but consciously or not “Cuba Libre” is different in a lot of ways.  Joe and Ben are younger than Tony while Saul is much older than him. Even though the theme of conflict between generations is present in “The Sopranos,” it’s much more integral to “Cuba Libre”.  And perhaps the biggest difference is that in “The Sopranos” the mob is in decline, struggling to hold on to what it has; whereas “Cuba Libre” is about the mob’s rebirth.

Neely: And where did this Cuban fantasy come from?  I loved the originality of the “what if” scenario, especially with the sly references to the bad old days under Batista and the improvements to gender equality, education and health care made by the evil regime of Castro. As you already pointed out about the imaginative segue from Serbia to Cuba, the rapacious return of capitalism and repatriation isn’t that much of a long shot when you consider what has happened in the various Eastern bloc countries after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Andrew: I think what will happen when Castro and his regime are finally out is that the Miami Cuban exiles will return and hold elections that they will buy, and turn it into a right wing crony capitalist state with a veneer of democracy.  And the U.S. government won’t be able to criticize them because it will have gotten what it said it always wanted – no more Castro. I think we could end up with a criminal haven 90 miles off shore – something that will be more dangerous than Castro was (with the obvious exception of the Cuban missile crisis). I envision a society there where everyone is on their own – the perfect incubator for criminals.

Neely: What struck you about old Havana and the mob?

Andrew: Again, it all leads back to Meyer Lansky.  He had Batista in his pocket and kept the Mob bosses in relative peace with each other in Cuba; he knew that was necessary if they were all going to continue making money.  I was struck by Lansky’s reputation as a business man.  They said at the time that if he’d been legit he’d have been running General Motors. Lansky had a superior intelligence but just wasn’t cut from moral cloth, though he never thought of himself as a thug. As his protégée, I see my character of Saul as having been groomed for something he could never become because of the fall of Havana. But Saul sees his own future in Ben.

Neely: I love the first two “Godfathers,” of course, and “Casino,” especially because I had a too close for comfort encounter with Anthony “the ant” Spilotro, and “Good Fellas,” but I’m especially fond of the Warner Brothers gangster films of the 30s with Cagney and Bogart and Eddie G and Muni – the original “Scarface,” “Little Cesar,” “Roaring Twenties,” “Public Enemy,” “Dead End;” I could go on and on. Like the Western and jazz, the Gangster film was a purely American invention, although we didn’t exactly invent the “mafia.”

Andrew: You know, although I’ve heard of those Warner Brothers films I haven’t seen all of them, just “Scarface” and “The Public Enemy”, and I can’t say I retained as much as I’d like.  You’ve really got me motivated and I’m going to see if they’re on Netflix Streaming – I think they might have a lot of them there.

I deliberately stayed away from “The Godfather Part II” because part of it is set in Havana, but “The Godfather” is a big influence on my character of Ben.  My favorite scene in “The Godfather” is when Michael decides that he’s going to avenge his father’s shooting.  Previously he’s been a ‘civilian’, now he’s going to kill Sollozzo. He doesn’t think this decision is going to change the rest of his life but it does.   In the same way, I see Ben telling the FBI he’s not going to help them as being very fateful   He doesn’t realize this will push him toward becoming what his grandfather wants him to become.

Neely: Retracing our steps a bit, what other writers have inspired you?

Andrew: Nabokov. I did my undergraduate thesis on him. He was exiled from Russia by the Soviet revolution when he was 19, when he was just becoming a man, and he was never able to go back.  All of his work expresses nostalgia in some form, for a lost homeland or for earlier times or a younger self. My thesis was on Lolita. Humbert Humbert was around 13 when his first sexual experience was interrupted and he continually longed to return to that moment – a nostalgia theme. My character of Saul had his heyday in Cuba and has been nostalgic for Cuba his whole life, thinking he’d never get to go back, that he’d die before Castro. Even though he’s American, America is actually his place of exile.  Ben, on the other hand, he’s in his 30’s but he can’t really be nostalgic for his teens since he’s never grown up.  In order to become a man Ben feels like he has to do something radical that will cut ties with his previous self.  Joe is a completely different case because he has no nostalgia at all. Everything in his way gets swept aside – no yesterday, just today, and what anyone did before him doesn’t matter.  Rachel, the lawyer, remembers life as a former beauty queen, newly married and just out of law school; the reality is that she’s now a divorced mob lawyer.

I also greatly admire Saul Bellow’s writing (my character is named in honor of him), it’s full of detail and brimming with life. I remember he wrote this line pointing out that even the bad guys in Chicago sit down and have lunch just like everyone else does.  That rang true for me – bad guys do bad things but they don’t think of themselves as bad.    They have to get through the day just like the rest of us and have a lot of the same emotions and reactions as other people.

Neely: Who was this taken to and what was the reaction?

Andrew: Hmmmm. I don’t know. I should know but I don’t. I think it was only taken out as a writing sample.

Neely: You know, Andrew, this is your career – not your agent’s, not your manager’s. You can always cast blame but at the end of the day it’s still your responsibility to make sure that your business is taken care of. You need to take control of this and ask the right questions. This is a very viable pilot.

Andrew: You’re right and I will have to take care of that. But strictly as a writing sample, it’s gotten me a lot of meetings and I also got a freelance “Mad Men” script from it.  Matthew Weiner was very complimentary; he said it would’ve gotten me hired on “The Sopranos,” and it was fabulous to work with him.

The good news is that since it hasn’t really gone out as a pilot it hasn’t exhausted those outlets. But I really do need to get it made soon. I can’t wait the 7 years Matt Weiner did on “Mad Men” because then Saul would be too old.

Neely: You’re a writer, Andrew. You’ll be able to come up with a creative solution. So what notes have you gotten on the sample?

Andrew: There’s nothing that’s been so specific. Mostly that it’s expensive; that “The Sopranos” hasn’t been off the air that long; that it’s a foreign location.

Neely: I would sense a lack of imagination on their parts.  Expensive is relative; it’s not like “The Sopranos” at all; and it could be filmed in a state that gives lots of film credits like Louisiana or Florida.  You can’t tell me there aren’t parts of Miami that don’t look like 1959 Havana (or more to the point, slums that look like Havana today).

Andrew:  All good thoughts. Even though it would be compared to “The Sopranos”, they take place in very different milieus; and Tony Soprano was the end of an era while Ben and Joe are the beginning of a new one.  And yes, Havana is a foreign setting, but the characters are almost all Americans.  The show isn’t about Cuba; it’s about these Americans in Cuba, who are willfully ignorant of the people and country around them for the most part.  Not that I’m comparing this to “Mad Men” or “The Shield”, but I’m hoping that some executive out there eventually sees this as the kind of ambitious show that could put their network on the map like those shows did for AMC and FX.

Neely: Your previous work was written with a partner, Amy Berg.  How long were you writing partners and why are you no longer writing together?

Andrew: Amy is a very talented writer. We worked together for over 3 years but ultimately had separate interests and went separate ways. She’s on “Eureka” now and doing well.

Neely: Your previous work was in Sci/Fi with “The 4400” and “Threshold.”  And then there was “North Shore.” This pilot is quite a switch – any back story?

Andrew: Actually the first show I worked on was “Boomtown”, which was a really innovative way to do a crime show that Graham Yost came up with, structuring the action by character and going back and forth chronologically.  Having that as your first show is a real inspiration in terms of what’s possible in any genre.  And it always amused me that Graham worked on “Full House” prior to selling “Speed,” talk about a switch.  Then “North Shore” was a soap opera for young people, but it had a better writing staff than most shows; those writers subsequently produced a lot more pilots in fact.  People like Liz Heldens can write anything, Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts, Kevin Falls, Brancato & Salke, Karyn Usher, Amy Berg – talented people who’ve written on all kinds of shows.  Here’s another good example – Matt Weiner was working on the Ted Danson sitcom “Becker” when he wrote “Mad Men.”

Neely: Ordinarily I’m full of ideas to re-purpose material, but in this case, television is the only realistic place for a series that envisions an imaginary Cuban scenario with already built in character and story arcs.  How were you going to sustain the premise?

Andrew: Well there are going to be tons of obstacles for the characters. Okay, they own the casino now, but it’s a dump, and getting that in order will be difficult.  Then there’s Joe having to explain how Tommy died, threats from his own people in Chicago.  And Saul having to bring Ben along and Ben moving into this life but not fully trusting his grandfather and knowing the FBI is onto them but not telling anyone that.  I imagine that Havana would become like Casablanca, all sorts of character types where anything is possible, especially in the world of crime; but there are going to be rivals.  This is the Wild West; it’s a boomtown not just for the criminals but also the lawmen.  I imagine that Al Capone’s Chicago during Prohibition was an exciting place for Eliot Ness, too.  So this is a great place for Elena (note: the woman who seduced Ben) to make her name in the FBI.

Neely: What brought you out here and how did you get started?

Andrew: I came out to go to the film school at USC. I did the directing program and I loved USC. You get to make the movies you want and it's fabulous. but then you get out and you're an assistant again. In my third year I worked at the Gersh Agency in the lit department for John Bauman. John played tennis with Chris Brancato, and because of that connection I got a job as an assistant for Chris and Bert Salke on "Boomtown," which led to getting a first script, though unfortunately just as the show was being cancelled. They're amazing about promoting their assistants to writers, probably the most generous in the business; so when "North Shore" came up, they hired Amy and me.

Neely: What are your long term goals?

Andrew: You mean besides getting this made? I’d like to run a show – one of my own or something I’d really believe in. I’d like to learn how to get something made that’s a little different and keep it on the air. I want to get shows on the air and sustain them – tell interesting stories.

Neely: Ideally, who would you like to work for, and if it’s not the same answer, what show would you like to work on?

Andrew: Well, I got to work for Matt Weiner. He’s amazing. He is so freaking talented; he’s much more talented than even shows up on the screen; by that I mean there’s a lot of great material he generates that doesn’t even make it into a “Mad Men” episode. As a showrunner he is so dedicated – a great model.  Another one would be Ryan Murphy. After the WGA Awards we ran into him.  I imagined I could read his mind and learn what’s coming up on “Glee.”  I was a choir geek in high school. I was even in madrigals where we dressed up in renaissance costumes at Christmas and sang at shopping malls. I so know that world.  Also, I just wrote a “True Blood” spec, the characters have such distinct voices that it’s easy to hear them talking in your head; and I would have killed to be on “The Shield

Neely: You should read “Ride Along;” it’s terrific.

Andrew: I know. I’ve heard it’s great. I’d love to work with Shawn Ryan. Who wouldn’t?

Neely: I’m really pulling for you. You have great imagination and someone really needs to take a second (or third or fourth or, you get the idea) look at this script – it’s original, it’s fresh, it’s premium cable.  Good luck.

To the Readers of No Meaner Place: David Mamet’s internal memo to the writing staff of “The Unit” on dramatic writing (with a capital D) has been posted to Movieline and it’s definitely worth a view.  I would put it in the category of Writing 101.  The memo begins:

“TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT

GREETINGS.

AS WE LEARN HOW TO WRITE THIS SHOW, A RECURRING PROBLEM BECOMES CLEAR.

THE PROBLEM IS THIS: TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN DRAMA AND NON-DRAMA. LET ME BREAK-IT-DOWN-NOW.

EVERYONE IN CREATION IS SCREAMING AT US TO MAKE THE SHOW CLEAR. WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A SHITLOAD OF INFORMATION INTO A LITTLE BIT OF TIME.

OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE INFORMATION — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.

BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.”

Read the complete memo at:

URL: http://www.movieline.com/2010/03/david-mamets-memo-to-the-writers-of-the-unit.php

Many thanks to David Freeman (screenwriter, playwright,  novelist, and good friend) for bringing this to my attention.

{jcomments on}

“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.” – Mark Twain


What: Lee Calloway, magna cum laude law school graduate and too smart for the room, has blown her final job interview in New York and must now try her luck in Atlanta, GA where an associate position allegedly awaits her at the firm of Kilpatrick & Cody.

Who: Lee Calloway, unemployable after 42 interviews, takes a last desperate leap when, despite the pleadings of her mother Ronnie, she accepts her estranged father’s offer of employment if she’ll join him in Atlanta at his firm. Lee, under the impression that Carter Calloway worked at the prestigious firm of Kilpatrick & Cody, accepts. Met at the airport by her roguishly charming father, without even time to take in her new surroundings, Lee is whisked to the Fulton County Courthouse...

Carter plows up the courthouse steps, Lee trailing behind.

Lee: The firm’s letting me watch trials on my first day?

Carter: I believe in throwing associates in the river right off. (casual) Your résumé said you like criminal law, is that right?

Lee: (nods) I interned with the Public Defender’s office last summer. That’s where I want to end up, eventually.

Pinky: (O.S.) John Carter Calloway.

It’s Pinky Kuhn, still a tall, cool drink of water at 40. Hot pants and a blouse that shows plenty of cleavage.

Pinky: You know a hard man is good to find.

And she kisses Carter big on the lips.

Carter: Hey, there. Pinky, honey, this is Lisa Mae.

Lee: Lee.

Pinky: Ronnie’s girl? Oh, my God!...

And to Lee’s shock, Pinky hugs her tight, plants a red kiss on her cheek.

Pinky: I’m the one right after Ronnie, baby – Carr’s second ex-wife. (hugs Lee again) It’s such a thrill to meet you.

As Lee stammers a hello, Carter puts an arm around Pinky’s waist, a purr –

Carter: You know, I sure could use a little pussy.

Lee: Carter!

Pinky pushes Carr’s hand away with a laugh.

Pinky: Me, too, honey – mine’s big as a bucket after two kids. (to Lee, a wink) ‘Scuse me, gotta go have my day in court.

And she saunters into the building, spike heels making her hips sway. Lee is appalled.

Lee: Your ex-wife is a prostitute?

Carter: Pinky? She’s a judge. Come on now – we’re late.

More surprises await Lee, none more shocking than to learn that her associate position is not with Kilpatrick & Cody but with her father at his new firm, Calloway & Calloway, created after he was fired by Kilpatrick & Cody. Further complicating matters, one of the Calloways has had his bar card suspended and the younger Calloway is expected in court to defend Randy Mitchum on charges of indecent exposure for expressing his affection in the cab of his pickup while parked at the local shopping mall – a conviction that will not only force him to register as a sex offender but will also trigger a third strike resulting in a very long prison sentence.  Caught dead to rights getting his knob polished, Lee is stumped as to what to argue. There’s always…

Carter: Calloway’s Law: when you’ve got nothing, argue the Constitution. Judges looove the Constitution, it’s like the Bible, or porn, they like just hearing about it. Calloway’s Law, works every time.

When in court defending Randy, Lee is getting hammered by the prosecutor, Win Williams, and being fined by Judge King for her colorful descriptions of Randy’s act…

Lee: You can’t send him away for a dime and a half because he got his bone smoked by his girlfriend!

Judge King: Five hundred dollars.

In the gallery, Carter tries to cloak his advice in a sneeze—

Carter: SshhhHearsay!

Lee: Tried it. You were in the john.

Judge King: Carter, you want to spend a night in a cell? Ms. Calloway, do you have anything else – that doesn’t involve filthy language – before I rule?

Randy stares up at Lee, desperate, pleading… Lee’s frozen, she’s got nothing…

Lee: The Constitution!

Calloway’s Law.

Judge King: Excuse me?

Lee: The First Amendment, Your Honor. My client has a right to free expression. This court cannot find him guilty.

An interested rustle in the courtroom.

Win: Your Honor, this is absurd. It’s not about expression, it’s sex.

Lee: You’ll recall that in State v. Pretty Kitty’s Titty City it was held that putting a… an object in one’s –

Judge King: Ms. Calloway!

Lee: -- Self as part of a sex show was protected free expression.

Win: That was indoors, not in broad daylight where you could give some poor old Baptist a heart attack.

Lee: (au contraire) That was commercial speech, which under the law gets less protection than… other forms of speech.

Win: It’s not speech. It’s not expression.

Lee: We all express ourselves with our bodies. What about dance? The message a body sends can be very clear. May I ask the Assistant DA to approach?

Win walks over, tentative.

Lee: Your Honor, is Mr. Williams claiming a kiss like this…

She pecks him quickly on the cheek.

Lee: Means the same thing as a kiss like this?

And she gives him a long soft kiss on the mouth. The courtroom goes dead silent. Win’s flustered.

Win: Ummm… I object.

Lee: Likewise, Mr. Mitchum’s… kiss expressed his feelings in a certain way.

Judge King: And what exactly was he trying to say?

Lee: I love this woman more than my life and I don’t care who knows it. (beat) But should it really cost him his life? We all know this prosecution is political. Should expressing his love really cost Randy everything? He may have used poor judgment, Your Honor, but it’s the First Amendment for a reason. It’s important.

And as unlikely as this argument may be, the Judge buys it and Randy is saved to infract another day.

And Lee is free to fight another day, and fight she will in all senses of the word. She will fight for her father who lost his previous job, his bar card and may lose his freedom for possible irregularities in his defense of the Apter Corp (Atlanta’s very own Enron); and she will fight her better instincts that tell her to stay away from Win, with whom she had a one night stand (alluded to in her “kiss” defense) and who will be the lead prosecutor in her father’s trial on wire transfer fraud. Not to worry, however, because the Carter Calloway defense brigade is jam packed with his fans, not the least of which are three of his five ex-wives. Arraigned in front of the aforementioned Judge King, coincidentally his best friend from childhood…

Judge King: Then Mr. Calloway, how do you plead?

Carter: What Mark Twain wrote of in Life on the Mississippi might well be applied to the Apter Corp. disaster: “It was without a compeer among swindles. It was perfect; it was rounded, symmetrical, complete, colossal.” (beat) It was a big old damn mess, is what it was.

Judge King: So what’s the plea?

Lee: Not guilty, Your Honor… Lee Calloway, Your Honor… co-counsel for the defense.

Carter: I live my life by a certain creed, Your Honor – also a Mark Twain observation, as it happens – “Never do wrong when people are looking.” Folks were looking – regulators were all over Apter Corp., some of them at my request. A mouse couldn’t have farted in a warehouse without it being known. (aggrieved) I deeply resent the implication in these charges that I’m stupid enough to do something like this.

And away we go!

No Meaner Place: Substance, humor (lots of humor), family relationships, the law… what’s not to like?  Gable writes masterfully and has found a fresh way in to a hoary genre. The question used to be “who has written a legal series” and has now become “who hasn’t?” The trick is always to use this arena to engage, ask as many questions as are answered, and entertain. She has found a way to flesh out her characters and has created that rare commodity of allowing character to create story rather than the more common story creating the characters. Never a fan of the South (and some may relate that to having had a father named “Carter” from Tennessee), Gable has lovingly painted Atlanta as a city that embraces its eccentricities, and Carter Calloway is nothing, if not eccentric. The family is Atlanta, the Courthouse, Calloway & Calloway, the ex-wives, and the formerly estranged daughter. Who wouldn’t want to pay a visit to this bracing, warm, fun and enlightening family?  Apparently this was not a journey that broadcast and cable saw fit to take.

Life Lessons for Writers: To quote Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare’s “Henry the VI, Part 2”: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Don’t you sometimes feel that networks and studios have substituted in the word “writers”?

Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: You have really captured these characters, but just as importantly you’ve made the legal aspects quite interesting – from Lee’s need to be the smartest in the room, as attested to by her failure to win an associate’s job at any firm in New York despite her high academic standing, to the importance of focusing on the seemingly minute details in a seemingly unimportant legal case such as Randy’s where a bad outcome will result in his placement on a National Sex Offenders’ list as well as an unjust third strike sentence due to his conviction on two previously minor offenses. Did you go to law school?

Ashley: Yes I did. I am a recovering attorney, as so many writers are. I went to Georgetown in Washington DC and practiced there for about two years and then I came out LA and practiced for another year at a law firm here.

Neely: What kind of law did you practice?

Ashley: In Washington, it was a weird kind of international litigation that is only practiced in Washington called “international trade;” and out here I did corporate, multi-media and entertainment law. So I was out there on the street defending the multi-national corporations.

Neely: So where did this particular pilot come from? Whole cloth, people you knew in an earlier life, personal experience?

Ashley: I wanted to do a law pilot because of my background and because I think it’s a really great area for a show; and I was intrigued about doing something more fun. I had been on “Family Law,” and “Family Law” was a grim, dark, not fun view of life. The job was great but the tone of the show was very dark, very plot-driven and I kind of wanted to go in a radically different direction. And I am a Southerner, I’m from Atlanta. I have a deep love/hate relationship with the South as most Southerners do. So that’s kind of how it sprang forth.

Neely: I have to say at the outset, I would never have guessed from your (lack of) accent that you had ever lived anywhere south of Manhattan.  You know, when I was reading this, I kept thinking of “Family Law” except this was funny. How are these two series related; how are they different (other than the fact that “Family Law” made it to air and this one didn’t and “Family Law” was grim)?

Ashley: I guess they’re related because they’re about the law, obviously. My own legal experience did not really prepare me to write a law show; but “Family Law” did prepare me. I learned much more about the nuts and bolts of various areas of the law just from doing research on that show. And I amassed files and files of interesting stories from newspaper articles and everything else. So actually, all the cases in “Calloways’ Law” are based on real cases.

Neely: Really?!

Ashley: Yeah. The dog custody dispute… everything. Getting the blow job and arguing “freedom of expression” is all based on real cases.

Neely: I would never have imagined that. Truth really is stranger than…

Ashley: I made up the argument of arguing “free expression” but the actual getting a blow job in the F-150 in the parking lot was based on a real case.

Neely: I have to admit that I had no doubt that that case actually existed; and if not yet, it certainly was a case waiting to happen. I noticed that your other credits, and they are impressive, were on shows that were not noted for much more than a scintilla of humor. Are you a comedienne trapped in a drama diva’s body?

Ashley: I’ve always been a funny drama writer. I’ve always enjoyed dramas, like the “Mentalist,” where I am now, that tell a dramatic interesting story but do it with humor. That has always been my bailiwick.

Neely: Let’s talk some more about “Calloways’ Law.” Where were you taking this series? I assume that Carter’s prosecution wasn’t going to last as long as the Enron prosecution.

Ashley: Exactly. It was going to last until the end of the first 13, or if I got a back 9 it would have lasted until the end of season 1. We’d have continued it with questions about whether he’d be reinstated to the bar. Can he practice law? And what was going to happen to his relationship with his daughter once he doesn’t need her anymore.

Neely: I hadn’t even considered that aspect. So it was actually going to involve a lot more in the area of family dynamics.

Ashley: Yeah, yeah. That interested me. At the time I was very interested in the father/daughter relationship.

Neely: How’s your father/daughter relationship?

Ashley: Fantastic. My dad is a lawyer and that’s what probably led into going to law school. He’s nothing like Carter! (laughs) I stress, stress, stress, he’s a quiet, gentle man; although he is very funny. My dad is the complete opposite of Carter. But I do think Carter and Lee had a cool relationship; there were a lot of colors to it in the way it worked dramatically.

Neely: How about your mom?

Ashley: My mom is also wonderful and not like any of Carter’s ex-wives. (laughs) I was very proud of her. When I was in high school she went back to school and got a Master’s Degree in Sacred Music and then became the music director of our church. I thought she was a very good role model growing up.

Neely: Then there’s a lot of “whole cloth” goin’ on here.

Ashley: Yes, there is.

Neely: What a great imagination. That’s fabulous!

Ashley: I think it’s lots more fun to make people up than to base them on real people.

Neely: (laughs) I guess it depends on who the real people are, but making them up is whole lot safer. I loved the device of the ex-wives and the hint that one of them, Beverly, was “evil.” I assume we would eventually have met Beverly. Please describe her.

Ashley: She is kind of the devil. She’s the only one of the ex-wives who really manipulated the crap out of Carter and she ended up having an affair with one of his legal partners. She put him through the ringer. Ronnie, Lee’s mother, was definitely the love of his life; but he really fell hard for Beverly, too. She broke his heart; and it’s hard to break Carter’s heart.

Neely: He seemed more the heartbreaker than the broken heart type.

Ashley: Exactly.

Neely: So it gave him an added dimension. Does Beverly still live in Atlanta?

Ashley: Yes she does.

Neely: How close did this come?  Who got it (both literally and figuratively)?

Ashley: I had actually written it just as a spec. A few years earlier, I had written a drama called “Sinner” that was very well received; but I had nothing in my repertoire that showed I could do comedy..

Neely: I’ve been a fan of your writing for quite some time because I had read “Sinner” and was very impressed.

Ashley: Thank you! Because I do like comedy in my drama, I wanted to make sure that I had a spec that highlighted that.  And I had been thinking about doing something set in the South for quite a while. So it started out as a spec and I was fortunate that people read it and really liked it and kept talking about making it. Although they never did… the bassssssss...

Neely: So it just remained a spec and it didn’t sell. Nobody came close enough to it to say “Let me buy this script and try to do something.”

Ashley: Exactly. I actually think that one of the reasons that I wanted to write it was the Southern thing, but that ended up being a pretty big impediment to its sale.

Neely: Really???

Ashley: The networks are kind of afraid of anything that’s too regional.

Neely: Did they read this??? (laughs)

Ashley: That’s what I said! But it did get a lot of interest and it certainly got me in a lot of doors. At one point, I think, all the networks circled it; but ultimately it didn’t sell.

Neely: The goal for “No Meaner Place” is not to do a “tsk, tsk. Aren’t you an idiot for not picking this up.” It’s more a hope that if it didn’t get made in the first place that someone will look at it again. I mean have you seen the shows that got picked up this year??? My God!!!

I read “Sinner” long ago and that was a really interesting pilot that skewered religious hypocrisy. What rounds did that one make?

Ashley: Trust me to write a script that could only appear on HBO. (laughs) The last taboo on television is God and treating faith in a serious, but not treacley way. On the first page of “Sinner” my televangelist is humping a hooker. But I wanted to treat the subject matter in a genuine way. Jimmy Dollar, the televangelist, really does believe in God and really does have a gift in spreading His Word; it’s just he also likes to bang hookers. It was really something I was passionate about. I wrote it and both Showtime and HBO took a look at it. I actually got a pilot deal from HBO out of it; but it didn’t go. That didn’t surprise me. It surprised me more that “Calloways’ Law” didn’t go; with “Sinner” it didn’t surprise me at all.

Neely: I love the whole concept of the blind script. “We love your script; we’re not going to buy it. Here’s some money; why don’t you write something else?” Or “Why don’t you write something else that we’ll pay for even though you’ve already written something fantastic that we won’t pay for.”

Ashley: It’s so true.

Neely: It’s so bizarre. On your blind pilot, did they tell you what they wanted from you?

Ashley: Funnily enough, it was another religious-themed idea that someone had come to them with. So they basically said, “We don’t want to make your religious-themed pilot, we want you to write someone else’s religious-themed pilot.” What they wanted me to write was a single camera half hour set in the world of a church, but not a televangelist; it was more about a mega church in Washington DC.

Neely: What happened with that?

Ashley: Not a darned thing. It didn’t go.

Neely: None of the networks, broadcast or cable, have cracked the religious hypocrisy barrier yet. And they probably won’t. To them, daring is vampires as a metaphor for prejudice (and the bloodier the better). It’s not tackling something head on. The papers are rife with examples of religious corruption that are so egregious that no one could possibly believe (spiritually or intellectually).

Ashley: So true.

Neely: I have sinned. Well, back on target… I really love “Calloways’ Law” and the wonderful characters. Chris Rich (“Reba”) was born to play the role of Carter Calloway. David Kelley wrote a similar character for him on “Boston Legal” where he played a smarmy lawyer, a counterpoint and agonist to the Alan Shore (James Spader) character. He really is Carter Calloway.

Ashley: That’s funny. I have a friend who was on “Reba,” so I’ll ask her about him.

Neely: There was another Kelley similarity that I don’t think you were aware of. A legal argument that the character of Eugene, a lawyer on “The Practice,” used when he had no other was “The United States of America.” Like “The Constitution”, this was his Hail Mary and worked to good and often hilarious effect.

Ashley: I watched “The Practice,” but I don’t remember that. What season was that?

Neely: It was interspersed. Probably in the earlier, lighter Eugene years – seasons 1 through 3, not the darker years at the end of the run. He’d get up in front of the jury and he’d go “And this is all about THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.  We don’t let that happen in THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” Or at least something like that.

Ashley: That’s great (chuckles).

Neely: Tell me a bit about the trajectory of your legal career. College… major… law school (which we already know was Georgetown). Had you always wanted to be a lawyer and what kind of lawyer did you want to be?

Ashley: For college I went to Harvard and then went to Georgetown for law school. I think I became a lawyer because, growing up in Atlanta or maybe I’m just really stupid, writing for television was inconceivable. Writers were poor people who lived in garrets and were kind of an embarrassment to their families. You could do writing as a hobby but you needed a real job, like law, like your dad does or whatever. Being a lawyer’s not a bad gig. You get to work with smart people, you get to use your brain, you get to write stuff. That always seemed like an acceptable thing to do; but I’d always written fiction on the side. Then it was when I was in law school that I came to the stunning realization that “Oh my god! People write for television. And they get paid.” It was like an epiphany – “Oh! That’s what I’m supposed to do!” So from then on I was very determined to try to make that happen.

Neely: So this happened in law school, even before you took the bar?

Ashley: From DC, I took the California bar. I was hoping to get out to California because when I had that Road to Damascus moment I got a book from Borders on how to write television screenplays. Chapter 3 said that if you wanted to write for TV you have to be in Los Angeles. So that was one of the many lessons I took and tried very hard to make happen.

Neely: What did you major in?

Ashley: American history.

Neely: Did you take any writing in college?

Ashley: Yes I did, actually. Harvard offers a creative writing – fiction- class, and I took that. It was led like a workshop so I took it for a couple of semesters.

Neely: In terms of being a lawyer, did your father have anything to do with that?

Ashley: Certainly. I admire and respect my dad and he was a lawyer for many years at Kilpatrick & Cody in Atlanta, which is why I chose that as the firm that kicked Carter out in “Calloways’ Law.” So yeah, he definitely had an effect on my decision making.

Neely: What kind of law did he practice?

Ashley: He was a corporate attorney.

Neely: You know, Harvard has produced quite a number of writers who went to law school first.

Ashley: I know. They’re legion.

Neely: Ed Redlich, Paul Redmond, John Bellucci (Ed’s writing partner) – they all went to Harvard for either law or undergrad.

Ashley: No kidding!  Also Chris Keyser, who with his partner Amy Lippman, created “Party of Five.” He graduated from the law school but he never took the bar or practiced.

Neely: How many in your circle are ex-lawyers that write?

Ashley: I know a fair number. There were a couple of lawyers on “Family Law”  who became my friends. And actually one of them, his name is Chris Ambrose…

Neely: …Chris Ambrose was on “Family Law?”  I love his work.

Ashley: Yeah. He started out as a researcher and ended up doing a freelance script. I think that might also have gotten him bumped up to staff writer. But it’s funny. There’s a parking space across from my parking space at Warner Bros. that recently had been labeled Ambrose and I know that “Harry’s Law” is shooting across from us. So I shot Chris an email saying “This is a weird and random question, but you’re not working on ‘Harry’s Law’ are you?” And he wrote back that he was and that we should have lunch. He didn’t realize that we were lot mates.

Neely: I tried so hard to get Chris on “Boston Legal” in one of the last seasons; his specs were the best specs that I had read that year.

Ashley: He’s a really good writer. Bill Chais is another old friend from “Family Law.”

Neely: I know Bill! He worked on “The Practice.”

Ashley: Now he’s created a law show that’s on cable – “Franklin and Bash.”

Neely: I loved the original script for the first pilot he got picked up – “Head Cases.” It was revised substantially by the time it aired, and unfortunately not to the good.  When I was looking it up I noticed that Chris Ambrose also worked on that show.

Ashley: Bill’s a good writer and a funny guy, too.

Neely: So what was your first job in the industry?

Ashley: It was on the first season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Neely: How did you get that?

Ashley: That’s an excellent question because I sometimes wonder that myself. I had written a “Picket Fences” spec, because I am a long time Kelley fan. It was a spec that dealt with zombieism as alternative medicine. A guy with cancer had his wife look up the recipe for how to make a zombie – the neurotoxins involved – and so she turned him into a zombie so he wouldn’t have pain with the cancer. Then of course on “Picket Fences” it turns out that they think that the wife killed him; but then it turns out that she turned him into a zombie. And is she allowed to do that? And then it ended up as a fight with the insurance company, so it wound up in court. I think the zombieism and maybe the audacity of the story was enough that Joss Whedon hired me and my then writing partner, Tom Swyden, as staff writers. That was our first break.

Neely: I didn’t realize that you had started out with a writing partner. At what point did you guys split.

Ashley: “Family Law” I think was the first job when we decided to work separately.

Neely: Where is he now?

Ashley: He’s still writing. He writes features as well as TV.

Neely: Best job? Worst job?

Ashley: My best job by far is “The Mentalist.” I love the show; the people are great. Bruno Heller is one of the best writers I’ve ever worked for. I have to say, I’ve worked with really great writers. Bruno Heller and Larry Gelbart are…

Neely: You worked with Larry Gelbart??!!

Ashley: I got to work with Larry freaking Gelbart!

Neely: On what? That’s effing incredible!!

Ashley: I am so lucky. He was my mentor. It was on my second job and he was godfathering a show on Showtime for his stepson Gary Markowitz (who’s a really nice guy). I think that Larry didn’t intend to be as involved in the show as he had to be. But the show started having some issues so Larry stepped in a little bit more; which sucked for Larry but was great for me because I got to work with Larry Gelbart. Larry is one of the big influences in my writing career and my life. He was my idol. “M.A.S.H.” is one of the reasons I’m a writer. It’s so great to realize that Larry was just as cool as you would want your idol to be. He was great in the room. He was the kindest, most generous writer I’ve ever met. We had a freelance script come in on that show – and it came in like crap – and he took so long to re-write it. I couldn’t figure out why. If he had just “page oned” it he could have knocked it out in a couple of days. But he was taking so much time because he was trying to preserve as much of her work as he possibly could; so it was taking him twice as long. I will never forget things like that; things that Larry Gelbart did. And for years after he would make phone calls for me during staffing season. He was just one of the most brilliant and wonderful people and I really miss him still.

Neely: What was the name of the show?

Ashley: It was called “Fast Track.”

Neely: I don’t think anybody could compare to him, but did you have any other mentors?

Ashley: Larry was my mentor but I have worked with a lot of wonderful writers who’ve remained friends and colleagues. I’ve been very lucky as far as the people I’ve worked with.

But short story long, “The Mentalist” is the best show I’ve been on. My relationship with Larry was very special to me but creatively, “The Mentalist” is very satisfying and that’s nice.

Neely: What was your worst job?

Ashley: Hmmm. There’s always been something good about every job. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve not worked with a bunch of assholes. So I don’t know. I would say, overall about my career, that the worst thing is that I’ve bounced from show to show so much. I’m a pretty successful working writer but “The Mentalist” is the first time I’ve been on a show for three seasons.

Neely: I hadn’t realized that.

Ashley: And last year, the second season, was only the second time I’d been on a show for two seasons because the shows I was on kept getting canceled. So, I would say that that’s the downside of being a television writer – you’re often having to look for a job every year. But even that has a bright side because I’ve learned so many different ways to run a show. I’ve seen so many different kinds of management styles, of writing styles, of everything, that I feel that that’s been really valuable. That’s the upside.

Neely: Has there been one particular show that you worked on that you absolutely loved that got cancelled after you started working on it?

Ashley: I liked a bunch of shows that I’ve been on, but I wouldn’t say loved, passionately loved. I think “The Mentalist” comes closest to passionate love.

Neely: How do you view the writing process overall? What is terrifying about it for you? What is gratifying? How do you write under pressure?

Ashley: TV is all about pressure. When you’re prepping the script, 200 people are waiting for the script on Wednesday and you’d better have it. That’s been interesting. But my law background helps with that. The law has deadlines, too. You have to get briefs and memos written in a certain period time. I’ve always been pretty good about deadlines. With writing, I’m not one of those people where it’s a traumatic, painful experience like giving birth. There are hard moments, especially when your scene isn’t working, but overall it’s fun to come up with stories; it’s fun to have characters say stuff to each other and it’s really fun to watch actors saying stuff that you’ve written. The hard part is when you’re staring at an empty marker board and you’re trying to think of anything to put on it. Coming up with the first initial kernel of the idea for me is the hardest part – and then making sure the story works. The other part about it is that television is so collaborative that it’s great to be working with people and if you run into a problem you can just sort of wander into their office and flop on their sofa and say “My act 3 isn’t working” and they’ll talk to you about it. I really enjoy that aspect of it.

Neely: You’re co-exec on “The Mentalist” right now, correct?

Ashley: I’m actually an exec now.

Neely: Excellent. Congratulations. I assume you’re ready to step into the shoes of a showrunner on something.

Ashley: I was ready, but I failed to set up my pilot this year. I’ll try again next year and see what happens.

Neely: Are you also developing right now?

Ashley: I was developing another legal show. I sold it to Warner Brothers but then we failed to set it up with a network. It’s really a network show; it’s not a cable show. So… back to the drawing board.

Neely: Why do you think it didn’t sell? Oh, never mind. Have you seen how many f***ing legal shows are on the air right now?

Ashley: That might be it. Also, my protagonist was a guy who had recently gotten out of jail and that was apparently a little scary for them.

Neely: Well leave it to networks… they’re always willing to take a chance.

Neely: What are you reading right now?

Ashley: I just started Water for Elephants

Neely: You’ll love it – you’ll be done with it tomorrow.

Ashley: I’m enjoying it so for. I hate to admit that I generally have kind of low-brow tastes. I enjoy reading airplane books like murder mysteries and stuff like that.

Neely: I adore Michael Connelly.

Ashley: Exactly! I love Michael Connelly. He’s probably my favorite, actually. He’s a really good writer.

Neely: Clearly you were a huge fan of TV because you were always thinking about TV even when you were in school.

Ashley: I really was. I think I owe it to Mom because she would never let us watch TV. So any time Mom left the house we would always turn the TV on and watch until we heard her car in the driveway and then we’d turn it off.

Neely: What did you like watching as a kid.

Ashley: “M.A.S.H.” I loved “M.A.S.H.” And also some of the great dramas that came out in the 80’s like “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere.” They really took TV drama in new direction that was very exciting.

Neely: And besides your own show, what are you watching right now?

Ashley: I watch a ton of TV. It’s not just a job, it’s a hobby. Let’s see, I’m watching… “The Glades”  it’s fun; “The Event” continues to hold my interest; I love “House;” still love “Grey’s Anatomy.” What else?…

Neely: Any comedies?

Ashley: I don’t watch so many comedies. I watch “Modern Family” and “30 Rock.” And actually, just last night, I saw the pilot of “Raising Hope.” That was pretty funny; I might give that another try.

Neely: I like it because somebody finally gave Martha Plimpton a good role.

Ashley: I really like Greg Garcia’s writing. He writes lower middle class characters really well in a way that’s funny but not condescending.

Neely: He writes really good characters and it is character comedy as opposed to plot driven sitcom. You might try sampling “The Middle.” It celebrates the “average” (and sometimes the below average) with a setting in non-urban Indiana. This is not a family of high achievers and, even though people tend to forget this, there is comedy in the average and in the “I have met the enemy and he is us” kind of way.

Ashley: I’ll have to check it out, especially since it’s a Warners show.

Neely: As an accomplished “lawyer-writer” you will always be in demand. But one of these days soon, I’d love to see one of your original series get on the air.

Ashley: Me too.

Neely: I hope you’ll send me stuff to read, but I’ll definitely be watching.  Thanks for spending the time with me because I know how busy you are right now. So get back into post production and finish that edit.

{jcomments on}

“In those big floppy shoes and baggy pants, Bongo really should have assumed running for safety was a long shot.” – Shayne-Michael.com


What: “Gorgeous” Gordon Lippick was the hottest commodity on the bull riding rodeo circuit until he rode “Furious George,” the biggest meanest ugliest bull and crashed out of the money.  Years later Gorgeous is an alcoholic foul-mouthed rodeo clown bent on revenging himself on the long missing Furious.

Who: Once the handsomest, sexiest, most talented bull rider in the world, Gorgeous Gordon Lippick is now no more than a joke; a foul-mouthed, foul smelling, dirt poor falling-down drunk rodeo clown.  His rung on the ladder is so low it’s subterranean. Still haunted by nightmares of his humiliating downfall on Furious George, the bull with only one cloven hoof, when he crashed into a fence and slashed his leg, he dreams of nothing but finding the bull and killing it.  Still all attempts at locating the bull have failed.  Miserable sod that he is, Gordon thinks nothing of screwing everyone in sight in order to get the information he wants.


A kid comes up to him.

Kid: Hey mister! Mister Gorgeous!

Gorgeous: Fuck you want?

Kid: I got you what you asked for.

He hands him a six pack of Genessee.

Gorgeous: Oh. Good work. You find the other thing?

Kid: Yup.

Gorgeous: Up front? You kidding?

The kid shakes his head, “no.” Gorgeous roots around in his pockets, comes out with a Band-aid, some Tums, a dollar and a mint.  He hands it to the kid.

Kid: That’s it?

Gorgeous: Actually I need the Tums.

Kid: A dollar?

Gorgeous: What are you, buying a Lexus?  You’ll get it. What do you got?

Kid: I saw it – a round hoof with no dent in it. My friend Joey showed me.

Gorgeous: Are you completely certain?

The kid nods and Gorgeous laboriously rises, favoring one leg.  He takes a blue pill, swallows it with beer.

Kid: Why is you leg hurt?  Did a bull stab you with its horn?

Gorgeous: No, it shot me with a crossbow, douchebag. Now c’mon, show me.

False trail, this time it was a horse, follows false trail, next time a droopy cow, all the while Gorgeous finds new ways to piss off everyone.

INT. THE RODEO RING –NIGHT

Gorgeous lurches forward wasted.  As he gets to the center, a bull and rider erupt from the chute and charge toward him…The bull…charges for Gorgeous, who runs for his life.  He barely escapes as the bull runs out.  Gorgeous pants, feels something rising in his gut.  He staggers to a barrel and PUKES into it in one great heave.  He stands up, relieved, and then another clown stands – the one in the barrel.

Gorgeous does, however, have one fan – “Tupelo” Tom Cody, a young wannabe cowboy who, despite the abuse, believes that Gorgeous can help him get a spot on the circuit.  Soon he has another one when he passes out in a corral.

He moves to get up and she grabs him by the arm to help.

Bobbie Joe: Easy. Just thought you might want a little help.

Gorgeous: Yeah well I don’t. I don’t need help from…

Bobbie Joe: Bobbie Joe Slayton.

Gorgeous: From you or any other lesbian, Bobbie Joe Slayton.  In fact, I’m tired of people offering me things. Next person offers me something, I’m going to tear out their goddam liver, take a big bite, then wipe my ass with the rest of it, got it?

Bobbie Joe: I just thought you might want these.

Gorgeous: What?

He looks around, realizes he’s in the corral for the children’s pony rides – in just his skivvies.  Around him is a ring of shocked parents and toddlers.

Gorgeous: Oh.

Bobbie Joe wants to break the barrier and become the first female bull rider and she needs Gorgeous’ help to do this.  In return she will help him locate Furious.  Progress is made.

No Meaner Place: “Bullsh*t” was Murray’s thesis script at the USC School of Cinema in the MFA writing program for which he received distinction from his thesis professor, Howard Rodman, a well respected screenwriter most recently nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for “Savage Grace.”  Murray was one of my students in “The Entertainment Industry Seminar” in 2008. Following the end of the semester I was approached by several of the students to read their scripts and give them notes, which I did for everyone…everyone but Ben.  I had no notes to give him.  I loved this story from the first page to the last.  Everytime it looked like this profane adventure was going to go in a conventional direction along came a twist and off it went in a different direction.  Every time it seemed that redemption was around the corner, Murray stayed true to his character’s nature.  Gorgeous is, for all practical purposes, unredeemable but not bad.  Certainly he’s no “hooker with a heart of gold,” but neither is he The Devil, just a devil.  Bad things have happened and been done to him.

Never has profanity been used more creatively and the situations are filled with pratfalls and slapstick although veering toward the violent but to hilarious effect yielding a true cinematic vision.  He has created three dimensional, delightfully down and dirty characters that any actor would relish.  Will Ferrell was born to play this derelict.

Amazingly, there has been very little interest in the screenplay.  It has been optioned by a small production company, for which he is very grateful; but this is a large summer-scale movie and deserves studio backing, as well as interest from a first tier agency.

Life Lessons for Writers:  Sometimes when you’re right you have to wait until they figure it out; and with features it’s all about the waiting.

Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: As previously noted, Ben was one of my students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and like all of his classmates was required to write either a feature or a pilot as his Masters Thesis project.  “Bullsh*t” was that thesis, receiving distinction from Howard Rodman.  What everyone needs to know about Ben is that he’s actually quite mild mannered, extremely polite, and quite deferential (or at least that’s how he is to his professors…).  He even warned me about the profanity before I read the script (so obviously he knows the real me as much as I know the real him).  So, Ben… Where the hell did this come from?

Ben: Well, from two different places, I guess.  I covered some rodeo for a tiny newspaper in Colorado.  They wanted a different angle and I decided to write about the bulls and the breeders as a way into the cowboys.  These are very small regional rodeos with cowboys hoping to move up to the bigger leagues.  Three are maybe a dozen competitors with an audience that numbers in the hundreds.  When it came to writing my script, I wanted to stick to something that would stand out in this crappy rodeo circuit.  Originally it was going to be the story of a girl making it in rodeo but then because of my own profane tendencies the story of the clown came in and then took over.  ‘What would be an obsession for the clown to have?’ and it developed into the idea of the clown assassinating a bull.

Neely: Like most of the MFA students you had a career before going back to school.  Please describe your trajectory from college to grad school.

Ben: I majored in journalism at a school no one has heard of called St. Michaels in Vermont because I thought it was one way to satisfy my need to travel.  Immediately after school I boarded a plane and got out in the town of Sitka, Alaska for a job that had already been set up for me.  It was actually more of an internship than a job covering community news – city council, school boards, fishing competitions, and bear stalkings – reports of bears stalking people in the woods.  Sitka was on an island of 10 miles of dead end roads that was over-populated with bears.  After 6 months I flew to Boston to work for monster.com which was quite hip at the time.  It drove me crazy for a year where I wrote articles about jobs and interviews.  But then I read this piece about someone working in Antarctica and I had to go.  I fought hard to get any kind of a job there and I ended up as a janitor at McMurto Station for 6 months. I tried to put some of those experiences in the pilot that you read; but I’ve tabled it for now. Then I came back and floated between Boston and Alaska before getting the job in Colorado.  Eventually I ended up with a job in Europe, primarily England and Germany, where I covered the U.S. military.  It was an amazing job, covering the military overseas which included a stint covering combat in Iraq for 7 weeks.

Neely: What was your impetus for going back to grad school?

Ben: I was stationed in Bavaria.  It was very isolated, very German and very depressing and I decided that maybe I should go back to school.  As I had flirted with film in college, applying to film school was the only thing I really wanted to try so I sent one application only (to USC) with the idea that if it hits, I’ll give it a ride.

Neely: You are at the beginning of your career, the first “breaking in” part, as Phoef Sutton might have described it.  What have you been doing since graduation?  How are you keeping a food on the table?

Ben: My day job is writing articles about social issues for the social-action website of Participant Media.  They were producers on “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Syriana,” and “An Inconvenient Truth.”  It’s not scintillating work but it keeps a roof over my head.

Neely: What kind of meetings did you get out of “Bullsh*t?  Anybody get offended?

Ben: Actually they’ve been few and far between, mainly with managers who liked the script and wanted a general meeting.  I sent it out a lot.  Some responded that “it was a bit strong for their taste,” but no one came out and said they were offended.  I got a couple of follow-up meetings but so far no real nibbles for representation.

Neely: How were you able to get it out there?

Ben: The big hook was the USC script list.  USC sends the list all over town and I got a lot of requests from that as well as requests from my meetings at “First Pitch.”  Howard Rodman was a big supporter and handed it to Stuart Cornfeld at Red Hour Films, and that led to an informal meeting on the set of his latest pilot.

Neely: Well, even though it didn’t go anywhere with him, you never know.  Everything in Hollywood has a long gestation period. I understand it’s been optioned by Andrew Lauren who produced the “Squid and the Whale.”  Any idea where he plans on taking it?

Ben: They do smaller financing but they’d like to step up a bit with a bigger budget.  They’d like to attach some actors before going out for more money.  They want to put together an attractive package before going to the next phase.

Neely: What has the development process been like?  What about the notes?

Ben: The option was predicated on their original notes which were some pretty good character notes.  They wanted to flesh out the villain so he wasn’t just a “black hat” and develop Gorgeous’ side kick a bit more, give them more dimension.  They also wanted more of a rooting interest for Gorgeous; to get the audience on his side quicker, which is tricky because you don’t want to make him really likable.  Since then it’s been variations on those scenes.  They wanted to eliminate the Gorgeous love story (note: this arc was not mentioned in the above synopsis) which, while psychologically difficult for me did end up opening up the room to further develop the other characters.

Neely: What about the development process when you were writing the script for class?

Ben: There was a scene that I absolutely loved that I had to drop.  I still think about it, it was so vivid and I was desperate to make it work.  This cowboy, one of the secondary villains, had a hormone condition that gave him absolutely perfect breasts and I had a sequence where Gorgeous was trying to deal with the cowboy while he was pumping his breasts.  I loved the imagery but sadly it’s for a different film.  It was way too over the top and I didn’t discover that until I did a cold read in class.  It was clear it didn’t fit.

Neely: How much of you is in Gorgeous and would your friends agree?

Ben: The language is me, well at least among my friends where I use the F-bomb quite liberally.  I can’t lay claim to a being a decade-long alcoholic at the bottom, but after a few beers I definitely sound like Gorgeous.  I just chose to apply my most vulgar self to the fiction.

Neely: What else are you working on?  How are you mining that diverse background of yours?

Ben: I’m part of a new program at the USC film school called “First Team.”  They try to pair someone from each discipline – writer, director and producer – to come up with a script, a budget and a marketing plan.  Then the film school sends it out to select agents and production companies.  It was by application open to any alumni and they took 30 from each discipline.  My feature is another R-rated comedy and it’s due in a couple of weeks; so we’ll see.

Neely: As one who is not from around these here parts, how are you adjusting?  Do you get restless to go back into the wilderness?

Ben: Only just so well.  It’s complicated.  LA is a real challenge and I’d rather be out in the nowhere doing something interesting day-to-day.  Covering the military was the highlight for me.  Here I’m writing so much it’s an isolating experience.  I was happier when I was adventuring in someway; it generated better stories.  Like Antarctica: there I worked 10-hour shifts cleaning hallways and then, later, driving buses in 24-hour daylight to airports made out of floating sea ice. Awesome. Do I get restless to go back to the wilderness? I would leave for Antarctica tomorrow if someone offered it. Really. Or Siberia, maybe, or Afghanistan to cover the troops.  L.A. - I just try to good naturedly hate it here.

Neely: I wish you well and hope that someone reading this will be in a position to help you get a good agent and push you in the direction you want to go.

{jcomments on}

"His brain has not only been washed, as they say... It has been dry cleaned." - Condon, Richard (The Manchurian Candidate.)


What: Four strangers, victims of a near fatal crash, manage their own rescue and proceed to go on with their lives, except…

Who: Arthur Immerman awakes to find that he is in an airport van dangling precariously on the rails of an overpass. Arthur is not alone, and others, Rick and Chasen, begin to rouse, stunned and frightened by their situation; Jennifer, in the back seat, is more seriously injured and has not yet awakened. As the van continues to teeter, the men are dangerously close to panicking until Arthur comes up with a plan that may (or possibly not) allow all of them, including the dangerously located Jenny, to escape the van before it catapults into the ravine below. Miraculously, his plan works and all 4 safely escape before the van breaks through the railing.

 

Arthur, Rick, Chasen and Jenny had arrived at the San Diego airport from very different locations for very different reasons – Arthur flew in from Hong Kong for his mother’s funeral; Chasen was on a romantic quest to find the local girl he had fallen in love with in Europe; Jenny was returning from an extended stay at a mental health facility; and Rick, well whatever it was, it is nefarious.  Surviving the car crash is only the beginning of their troubles.

Somehow, making their own way to San Diego General, all wires have been crossed. When his insurance is denied and he is confronted with the information that his social security number is non-existent, Arthur, offended and angered, pays cash for his bill, as well as that of Rick. Leaving, he bumps into Chasen, an encounter he would have preferred to avoid.

Chasen: You ever get Déjà vu? I kinda feel like that with you. Like we’ve met before.

Arthur: I’d say maybe you’ve used me as your lawyer but… (looks him over) I don’t think you could afford me.

Chasen: No, that’s not the weird part. I feel that way with the others too.

Arthur distances himself from Chasen.

Chasen: You. The Rambo guy. Jennifer. It’s like… I know you but I can’t place it. (shakes his head) Never mind.

Arthur: (you are insane) Yeah. Weird. (hums Twilight Zone theme) Have a good one.

Single minded of purpose, Arthur continues on his path to the unpleasant reunion with his estranged father forced by the impending funeral of his mother.

We pick up Arthur standing at the door of a tiny house in the worst part of San Diego. Simply put, a trailer park makes this place look good. So if this is where Arthur came from… he rose a long way.

He knocks again – Finally, the door opens –

Arthur: Hi.

Reverse to Gerry (60s) standing in the doorway. He’s dressed in a cheap black suit, has massive bags under his eyes. This man is going through hell. In fact, he’s probably been through hell his whole life.

Gerry: What do you want?

Arthur: I can’t believe mom’s gone.

Arthur leans in to embrace him, but Gerry shuts the door halfway, cutting him off –

Gerry: Who are you?

A beat. Not the welcome home Arthur expected.

Arthur: Who am I? Dad, it’s me.

Gerry: Huh?

Arthur: Did you stop taking your meds again?

Gerry: What medication? You accusin’ me of something?

Arthur: Can I come in?

Gerry: I don’t know you.

Arthur: I’M YOUR SON!

Gerry: Kid, I’m burying my wife this afternoon. Leave me the hell alone.

Gerry tries to close the door – but Arthur jams his foot in.

Arthur: This some sick joke?

Gerry: I’m calling the cops now.

Arthur: WAIT! Hold it a second –

Arthur pulls out the picture from his wallet – of the woman and her child.

Arthur: Look at this. How did I get this? How?

Gerry: (looks at the picture) That’s a very good question. How did you get that?

Arthur: Because that’s me and that’s mom!

Gerry: You’re wrong.

Arthur: Wrong?? Dad, after the funeral I’m taking you to a neurologist – the best in the country –

Gerry: -- That’s my wife, God rest her soul, but that baby died six weeks after this picture was taken.

Gerry closes the door and –CLICK – locks it – leaving Arthur (and us) to wonder just what the fuck is going on…

Similar situations await the others, none more deadly than the scenario that plays out for Rick when he arrives at the La Jolla gallery, an art gallery that isn’t an art gallery, where he is employed.

Int. Schraeder Fine Art Gallery – Day

A granite sculpture of a woman in a fetal position fills the screen.

Mr. Nady (O.S.): It represents rebirth…

Reverse to Rick – turning to see Mr. Nady.

Mr. Nady: … coming to terms with a new life. A clean slate. (stares) A tabula rasa.

Rick: (annoyed) I know what it represents. (moving on) Mr. Nady, we’ve got a problem with Molly.

Mr. Nady: Have we?

Rick: She’s acting very strange.

Mr. Nady: Is she?

Rick: If she’s acting this odd around town… (leans in, almost comically) …she could jeopardize our entire operation.

Mr. Nady: Here’s the thing. Molly claims to have never seen you before. Correct? (beat) Neither have I.

Rick senses something’s off – he looks behind him – sees the two security guards reaching out –

He defensively elbows one in the neck – but the other puts him in a strong hold – Rick is stuck.

Well. Fuck.

Mr. Nady: Which has me wondering. Do you know what’s going on behind that door?

Before Rick has time to answer, his right temple has an unfortunate run in with a nasty left hook.

Cut to black:

Int. Somewhere – Soon

Complete darkness. Until –

THOOM – a spotlight turns on – shines its light down onto – Rick – he’s strapped to a chair, his mouth taped shut – his eyes squinting to shield him from the spotlight.

Similar sinister experiences await Chasen and Jennifer. Rick, lucky to escape with his life, will eventually be the linchpin to the discovery of what has and is happening to his fellow survivors.

 

No Meaner Place: From the thrilling moment that the rescue from the jaws of death is presented vibrantly and visually, the stage has been set for each character to bond, not only with each other, but with the audience who has immediately been made part of the ensuing stakes. Deliberately pulling the audience back and forth in time, disorienting us with a sketch of the past that clouds a confusing present, Sokolowski paints a very murky picture. Not quite science fiction fantasy, not quite conspiracy mystery, not quite action thriller, he has successfully melded them all. Straddling the ethereal mystery of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Condon’s Manchurian Candidate as directed by Frankenheimer, something is rotten in Denmark; our four protagonists are going to be in for some really problematic adventures.

Sokolowski has found a way to employ the same kind of flashbacks that were used to such great and obfuscating effect on “Lost.” Who are these four characters? What is their fate? What is the master plan, and more importantly, can it be stopped? Prior to becoming a number in this “brave new world,” Arthur discovers an important piece to his own puzzle.

Close on Arthur’s airplane ticket stub.

Voice on the other end (O.S.); Thank you for calling American Airlines. How can I help you?

Pull back to a pay phone – we go up the cord, until we find Arthur speaking through it –

Arthur: Hi, I’ve got a question. (looks at ticket stub) I was on yesterday’s flight from Hong Kong to San Diego. Flight 429.

Voice on the other end (O.S.): Ok?

Arthur: Can you confirm I was sitting in seat 8J?

Voice on the other end (O.S.): I’m sorry?

Arthur: I know this is an odd request, but can you just tell me if I was sitting in 8J on last night’s Flight 429. The name’s Arthur Immerman.

Voice on the other end (O.S.): Sir. I’m sorry. I can’t do that.

Arthur: This is the most important thing in the world to me right now. And I’m just asking for your help. (genuinely) Please.

A beat. We hear the clicking of a keyboard through the phone.

Voice on the other end (O.S.): Sir, you said Hong Kong to San Diego?

Arthur: Yes.

Voice on the other end (O.S.): Direct?

Arthur: Yes.

A beat.

Voice on the other end (O.S.): Sir, we haven’t offered that flight in three years.


Life Lessons for Writers: “A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” (John Steinbeck)

Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: I was sent this script almost out of the blue. I was trying to track down another writer and your manager thought that maybe I’d like to read your script. It blew me away! I was lucky to catch you because you’re in from out of town for meetings.

Ben: I’m actually in town to pitch another show.

Neely: Well, where did this particular page-turner come from?

Ben: I was flying home from USC, where I went to college, for my 5 year high school reunion and I fell asleep and had this extremely vivid dream. When I woke up, it still felt like part of the dream, sort of like “Inception.” The dream was that I landed in Toronto and my mom was supposed to pick me up, but she wasn’t there. So I took a cab home but then my mom didn’t recognize me. I still go to my high school reunion and again… nobody recognized me. Ultimately this script came from this dream I had about being forgotten. I had moved away from my home town; I’d come back and all of a sudden I don’t exist.

I think what really drove me to write this show was this feeling I had, this fear that I’m sure everyone has had a one time or another. What if I don’t exist? What if no one remembers me? What if I don’t matter? And from that, I just started writing and it turned into “Identities.”

Neely: So you went to USC for undergrad? In what department and when did you graduate?

Ben: I was in the writing division at the film school and got my BFA in ‘06.

Neely: To me, this script is so many different genres put into one blender. Did you see this as one particular genre or another; and if so, what is it or are they?

Ben: At the time I was interning for J.J. Abrams company and I really wanted to try to replicate a “Lost”-type series. That was a big inspiration for me because I think it has a lot of similar elements – it’s a lot of different shows wrapped up into one. For me, this was really looking at the characters and seeing where they took me. If one ended up being a bit more comedic, like Chasen, great. If one was a little more action-y like Rick, terrific, and so forth.

My hope was that people got it, because you can’t really condense it into a “cop” show or a “doctor” show – the single genre types that are so popular right now.

Neely: Well, that answers my next question which would have been what influences were at work here, because, as you noted, you’ve got the cop show, the fantasy, the sci-fi, the thriller. I definitely see the J.J. Abrams influence. What did you do when you interned at “Lost?”

Ben: I started interning for Bryan Burk, who, at the time, was doing a lot of the post production work and, well it’s hard to describe, but Bryan was the guy who seemed to do everything. When he promoted his assistant, I was brought in to be his new assistant during  my senior year in college. I was pretty much working full time on his desk and going to school. But as a screenwriting student, you can find a way to do that. Then Bad Robot (J.J.’s company) formed a massive deal with Paramount and so I transitioned into development for the company and away from “Lost.” But when I started there, I got to go through the editing process and go to the scoring stages, the mixing stage, all of that stuff.

Neely: Who at Bad Robot saw this script?

Ben: I think my manager, A.B., probably gave it to either Athena (Wickham) or Kathy (Lingg); maybe both. They’re J.J.’s development people.

Neely: Why didn’t you hand it to them directly?

Ben: It was important to me for them to see me in a different light – not as an assistant, but as a writer.

Neely: Well let’s go back to “Identities.” We know at the end that Arthur and Jennifer have been “captured” and that Rick has made a perilous escape that puts him in contact with a mysterious ally. We also know that the rather clueless Chasen is dangerously close to being entrapped. What happens to him?

Ben: I probably should go into the macro-world of it all.

Neely: Please do, because if we never get to see this, I want to know.

Ben: You never know because you might actually get to see this.

In any case, essentially these guys aren’t the people they think they are. That we get. They all knew some part of this conspiracy – the conspiracy that there is an organization that wants to brain wash the entire public – get them to think that they’re not who they think they are as a way to control their minds. As part of their data testing process they took the four people who had stumbled upon this conspiracy to test their theories. So all these characters are completely different people who discover this conspiracy and are now part of the process. Except… Rick escapes and, obviously, the others will escape as well. They will have to find out who they were and what they knew in order to stop the conspiracy.

Neely: I loved Chasen’s “déjà vu all over again.”

Ben: Chasen is actually the son of the bad guy. He stumbled upon some files about all the people who have been brain washed. So that’s why he knows them, but he doesn’t know how he knows them.

Neely: As confusing as all of this is, you still managed to construct a “world” in which these characters will live. I talk about the “world” or the “home” a lot. You created the world, which you just described, which is the greater aspect of the story, but you also created a home where they all come together, the  crash site, even if they never return there. It’s the establishment of their bonds, what they will always have in common and it’s the place where we experience who they are, or in this case who they think they are. From there, the rest of the story will unwrap. It’s a classic character drama because story comes out of character, character isn’t led by story. You’ve created backstory, a home and a world. The trifecta!

Ben: Thanks.

Neely: In talking to your manager, I was under the impression that this is still making the rounds; or at least I hope it still is. Can you talk about where you have taken it and where it stands?

Ben: I can’t go into too much detail but I’m hoping that we’re on track to land this as an international co-production. I’m Canadian, so there are lots of tax treaties that make it a little more enticing. I’m hoping that something will be coming up in the next few weeks.

Neely: There are several on the air already – “Sanctuary”, “Rookie Blue,” “Durham County,” “Flashpoint,” and “The Bridge.”  As much as I understand about co-production (and that’s not a whole lot), I assume that this would be a co-production with an American studio along with a Canadian company because of the tax incentives. I know nothing about how Canadian TV works. I have, however, wondered why we were only selling and never buying. Sure, you make more money when you sell your product; but buying a Canadian series costs a lot less money than making it yourself and you’ve already had a trial with an audience whose only major distinction is their support of National Healthcare and saying “oat” instead of “out” (that is, if you live in Ontario).

So, what has been the reaction so far to “Identities” as a series, and especially as an international co-production?

Ben: Starting with the original script, it became my calling card. It opened up a lot of doors for me and people began calling my agents and my manager. We were getting a lot of incoming calls which was great and it actually got me a blind script deal at Warner Brothers. The international co-production possibility has only come up within the last few weeks. It came out of nowhere!

Neely: Besides the blind script deal, did “Identities” get you any work?

Ben: Yes, I staffed on a Canadian show called “The Listener.” I worked on season 2. Season 1 aired over a year ago.

Neely: What’s the premise?

Ben: It’s about a telepathic paramedic.

Neely: Oookay. Well it’s probably no more improbable than “The Ghost Whisperer” or “Dr. Vegas” with its “one deals the other heals”. This could be “I sense your pain.”

Ben: It did amazing in Canada and sold really well overseas. I came aboard in Season 2 when they decided to change the premise to the adventures of a telepathic spy, which, in its own way, makes more sense than a telepathic paramedic.

Neely: I agree. In its own way, “Chuck” is a about a telepathic spy (not so much telepathic as a strangely programmed-against-his-will spy) and depends only on massive (but enjoyable) suspension of belief. You know, this kind of thing falls under the category of “a gig is a gig.” If you’re good you learn from every experience because you don’t always get to choose. Early in his career, Jon Sherman, one of my very favorite writers (“The Compleat Pratt”) worked on “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” It wasn’t Pulitzer Prize-winning material but he loved the experience and was mentored by Nell Scovell, the creator.

Ben: It was a great experience for me and I didn’t have to interview for the job. They read my script and hired me. That wrapped up in April and since then I’ve been working on the Warner Brothers script.

Neely: “Identities” is a great calling card, but I really hope it does become an international co-production. I hear so often from writers that their passion projects got them lots of jobs, opened lots of doors, that everyone loved their scripts, but no one produced them to series.  So I hope that you’ll keep me in the loop on it.

Ben: I think “Identities” could really work as an international co-production. It could be set it up like “Persons Unknown,” a Fox International Mexican-American co-production written by Chris McQuarrie that did 13 episodes in year one.

Neely: I noticed that you have a freelance teleplay credit on a series from 2007-08 called “Fear Itself.” I pride myself on seeing one of every new series that airs and I can’t for the life of me place this anthology. How many episodes ran – when and where?

Ben: That was one of the first international co-productions. It was NBC and Lionsgate. It was a horror anthology with old time horror directors who produced these one hour mini-movies. It lasted for something like 8 episodes and I wrote a couple, but only got one on the air. It was a great learning experience, and my first paying gig.

Neely: That had to have been almost right out of school.

Ben: It was. It was about a year after, about the time that I left Bad Robot.

Neely: When reading the synopses of the episodes (source: Studio System), the otherworldly thriller aspect to them seem very similar in tone to what you’ve written with “Identities.” Coincidence?

Ben: Coincidence. Ultimately with almost any anthology show you’re sort of modeling yourself after “The Twilight Zone.” I grew up on “The Twilight Zone” so I have to admit that almost anything I write is going to have some nugget of a Rod Serlingesque story.

Neely: You’re credited with teleplay. Who wrote the story?

Ben: It was based on this short story by a British author named Paul Kane called “Dead Time.”  I’ve since become “pen pals” with Paul, who lives in London. He’s sent me a lot of his work and I’ve sent him some of mine. It’s been great and I hope to work with him again.

Neely: Have you read other things by him?

Ben: Unh Huh. And he’s terrific.

Neely: You also have some below-the-line production credits on two J.J. Abrams shows.  Did you get a chance to work directly with J.J.?

Ben: We had company meetings, and it was a small company, so there was direct contact. But I never worked with him directly, per se. I was really working with his partner Bryan Burk.

Neely: I know that you’re working out of town right now. Is it a green card issue or do you prefer working in Canada?

Ben: I love Canada. I grew up there, my girl friend lives there. I live in Toronto, so it’s not like I’m living in Winnipeg or Saskatchewan. It’s so easy to just hop on a plane to L.A. and I don’t mind commuting to wherever the work is. Being a Canadian writer, I find it a lot easier to get work.

Neely: Was writing something you always wanted to do?

Ben: Yes! I grew up wanting to write comic books. At some point in my teen years I fell in love with sports and decided I wanted to be a sports agent. Then I saw “Jerry McGuire” and I thought, “You know what? Forget being a sports agent, I want to go back to writing.” I actually had the pleasure of meeting Cameron Crowe once and I told him that. He laughed and said that I was the first person to see “Jerry McGuire” where it turned him off being a sports agent. Apparently everyone else who saw it wanted to be a sports agent.

Neely: (laughs) Going back to college, where else did you apply besides USC?

Ben: I applied to Syracuse, Boston and Michigan.

Neely: All of them for writing?

Ben: None of them had writing programs; all of them had film programs. So it was all for film; but USC was the only school with a writing degree.

Neely: What was your experience?

Ben: The education I got from the screenwriting program put me far ahead of any writers learning the trade, because I think writing is a craft. Having four years of dedicated study to that was great for my career. That being said, part of me wishes I had a broader education. I could have watched all those movies on my own; whereas I missed opportunities to take a lot of classes in Art History or Philosophy and become a more well-rounded individual. So I’ve been trying to catch up; doing a lot of reading on my own since then. It had its pros and cons, but the program itself was fantastic.

Neely: Any mentors along the way?

Ben: Yeah… I think Bryan Burk was definitely a mentor. I learned more from working for him for three years than I did in the four years at USC. When you’re in the business, when you’re in the show, having someone taking you places and teaching you things - that was really instrumental. And my manager A.B. Fischer has shepherded me from a wide-eyed young writer to what I hope is a more savvy one. I was also very fortunate that my stepmother was friends with a Canadian writer, who, when I was 15 and wanted to get into screenplay writing, took me under his wing and gave me the first script I ever read – an old copy of “The Fugitive.” I started reading scripts because of him; his name is Carl Knutson. I’ve also met some great writers in Canada in the last couple of years all of whom have really helped me. When I was at “The Listener” I was the youngest person by a decade so it’s been easy to find role models. I’ve been fortunate.

Neely: What about literary influences? Favorite authors or books?

Ben: Not surprisingly, I think Stephen King would be one. But I also love sprawling epics. I’ve loved John Steinbeck since I was really young. East of Eden is my favorite novel. I’m sure there’s a whole long list but I’d say that Stephen King and John Steinbeck are my two favorites, which is an odd combination I think.

Neely: It is an odd combination but if I were guessing, one I would think was for story and enjoyment and the other is for the pure reading pleasure of the craft and the language.

Ben: Absolutely.

Neely: Steinbeck is one of my personal favorites also. I wasn’t much of a reader in high school; I certainly read very little that wasn’t assigned. But after reading The Grapes of Wrath, one of the high points in 20th Century literature, I went on a (voluntary) Steinbeck jag, reading everything of his I could get my hands on. I even tried making the beer milkshake from Cannery Row. I suppose I really didn’t have to do that because the result wasn’t any different than described in the book – curdled milk and a disgusting smell. His writing is so deceptively dense and page-turning.

Ben: It’s easy to breeze through genius.

Neely: What are you watching on television now? What have been some of your favorites of the past?

Ben: Let’s see, it’s a new season… “Dexter.” I started watching “The Event,” although apparently not many other people are. I love “Friday Night Lights.” I’m mentally going through my TiVo list…

Neely: “Friday Night Lights,” by the way, is a real favorite among writers.

Ben: The writing is so terrific and I love “Parenthood,” too. So I’m a big Jason Katims fan. I don’t know him, but he’s terrific.

Neely: Jason also did “Boston Public.” He’s a really really nice guy. What else are you watching?

Ben: I’ve been so out of it for the last two weeks that I haven’t watched a single hour of television.

Neely: Well keep going through your interior TiVo list and we’ll come back to this. What about past TV shows? What TV shows do you think had an influence on you?

Ben: “The Twilight Zone,” without a doubt; “Quantum Leap,” “The X-Files”…

Neely: You’re more of a sci-fi guy than I had figured.

Ben: (laughs) Well the key is to hide the sci-fi.

Neely: Keep going… what else?

Ben: I loved “Ally McBeal.”

Neely: That was politically correct. What aspects of “Ally McBeal.”

Ben: No, really! I loved the sensibility. I loved that it was fantastical and grounded at the same time. It was sort of a rosy colored show.

Neely: It was actually designed to have a specific color palate, so I’m glad you picked up on that. It’s supposed to be somewhat transparent to the audience, but a really good show is almost always going to have a very specific palate that will guide you in a specific way.

So back to your TiVo. Are you thinking about shows you’re looking forward to watching or at least to sample?

Ben: What’s new that I haven’t started yet?

Neely: You haven’t covered any comedies.

Ben: I love “How I Met Your Mother,” especially the early years – seasons 1-3 – but I still watch it. “Modern Family,” but I guess liking it is a cliché.

Neely: It deserves its status. The writing is superb. You have a bunch of former “Frasier” writers who do not pander, patronize or condescend. They assume that their audience is intelligent.

Ben: That’s great; that’s what you have to do.

Neely: I also like “The Middle” which breaks no new ground and isn’t on anyone else’s favorite list, but it covers parenthood from the standpoint of average parents with average to below-average children, which is something you rarely see. Patricia Heaton is spot on as a frustrated Mom. “Modern Family” does cover some of the same parenting frustrations, but these are clearly upper middle class families.

Ben: Is that the joke of the show that they’re just average?

Neely: Not really. It’s still a family relationship comedy, more about the parents than the kids. It isn’t just that they are below average in income, jobs and academic achievement, they still love their kids and spouses and want the best for them even against the odds. Their struggles, both inside and outside the family, are not so different than anyone else’s – mortgaged to the hilt (even if it’s a dumpy house in the Indiana hinterland) with kids who rarely get it right and parents who often miss the point. Just ask my son, I almost always missed the point (and he’ll say that I still do). There’s something very releasing about watching that mom yell at her TV son and get no result whatsoever. I think the lessons that you learn as a parent don’t come until your kids are out of the house – they’re going to do what they’re going to do and yelling to the point of laryngitis isn’t going to make it go faster. I hate to think of the polyps I must have developed over time.

Like I said, there’s no new ground that’s broken; but it has a very solid heart and I look for that in any kind of writing.

Ben: The heart’s important.

Neely: That it is and it’s amazing how often it’s missing. When you’re being too cool for school, that’s what’s usually missing. I’m not a big fan of edge for the sake of edge.

Ben: I love “The Event,” but I’m missing a connection.

Neely: Ah yes, the multi-layered conspiracy show  that has way too much going on and too many conspiracy threads. I’m actually not a conspiracy theory fan, so that makes it all the more amazing that I tuned into your script. To a certain extent, the conspiracy that is the core to your pilot is well disguised by the character development, because, once again, story is following character, not the other way around. “Rubicon,” a new show I started watching, is all about conspiracy but the writing is too precious. Just get on with it. If I have to see Will filing papers and looking meaningfully one more time, they’ll lose me. Actually they have lost me. Just get on with it!!! Involve me. With “The Event,” the conspiracy is quite intriguing but they’ve taken a kitchen sink approach and there is too much going on. When you take that approach, the viewer can’t keep track and it becomes harder to latch on to character and story. It’s too complicated. I’m not sure that having three central themes is very trackable.

Ben: Going back to “Lost,” there’s a moment in either the pilot or the second episode where Jack needs Kate to stitch him up. He tells her, “Count to 5 and then you won’t be afraid anymore.” And that’s when they connect and you connect with them. That may be what’s missing in “The Event.”  You need to have that moment in the show where you “get” the characters and believe in them and fall in love with them. Without that, a great plot is just a great plot but not a particularly great show. I think that’s the difference between a “B” movie and good television.

Neely: Unfortunately a lot of these things that we’re talking about are not necessarily the fault of the writer. Remember the process is that you write it and then someone else messes with it – usually someone at the network or studio who is giving notes. I guess we never know what the true intent was. I read the script of “The Event” and although I thought there was too much going on, it was very elegantly written.

Ben: It was terrific. I loved that script; it was my favorite pilot.

Neely: Another example of really good writing and excellent critical response was “Lone Star” that ended up being a flop with the audience. I think it was trying to be a classic soap opera like “Dallas,” so character isn’t entirely fleshed out (which is a factor in the genre) because soap opera is all about story, just not in a procedural way but in a serial way.

Ben: I thought it was a terrific pilot; I loved it. I thought is was so ballsy – even in their music choices. But it’s the kind of show that has a “collision point,” like “Lost.” From the pilot of “Lost,” you know that at some point they have to get off the island and you’re waiting for that to happen. I think the writers on “Lost” were brilliant in being able to extend that by having the flash forwards. But ultimately, from the pilot on, you’re dangling a carrot. The show can’t survive as soon as the audience reaches that carrot. In “Lone Star” they set themselves an impossible task because how long can the two wives go without knowing about each other? Even with brilliant writing, how far can you extend that premise? Can you get a season out of it…two? If you’re a network, you don’t want one season, you don’t want two seasons; you want five seasons.

Neely: Your analysis of the collision point is excellent. I had never thought of it that way before. In “Lonestar” there are probably too many things for the audience to track, but more importantly, the reveal comes too early. The collision point, the reveal is already there. Once you know the reveal, you’ve only got two choices. It goes this way or that; and if the audience doesn’t find either of the two choices engaging enough they’re not going to stay. In retrospect, one of the choices might have been more enticing if we didn’t already know what the main character’s motivations were. Certainly, one of the things that worked well was that the lead character, the bigamist con man, was something of a cipher – we didn’t have a feel for him and we shouldn’t have a feel for him yet. It would have been more interesting if he had room to become that guy you didn’t think he was. But in the end, I don’t know. It was a very well written and well produced pilot. As an audience member, though, too many subplots were initially introduced and I already knew he was going to get caught. So, is the hook “I want to see how he gets caught?” That’s the hook in the movie version that ends after 2-2 ½ hours.  But in a series, do I want to wait 100 episodes to see if and how he gets caught? Probably not.

Ben: That’s what’s so interesting about “Dexter.” That’s not the hook. In 9 out of 10 serial killer shows, that would be the hook – how’s he going to get caught. But in “Dexter” they entice the audience by making him such an interesting and conflicted character. You’re rooting for him not to get caught because you are completely drawn into his guilt and conflicted nature. Avoiding getting caught is only the C story. It’s more about him having to overcome that dark stranger. There isn’t a traditional hook there, or if there is one, it’s sort of buried. It’s now going on 5 years.

Neely: The collision point has seemingly already occurred, and it doesn’t matter. The collision point by your definition occurred in the first season. It’s an aspect, his getting caught, but it’s an aspect that’s repeatable. You’ve made a really good insight.

So,  What else are you working on right now?

Ben: I have this pitch right now; and I hope to do a high concept show with no collision point. So we’ll see.

Neely: I have my fingers crossed that “Identities” gets more than just praise – that it gets the shot it deserves. I’ll be watching for the rise of the very talented Ben Sokolowski! Thanks for taking the time. And please keep me posted on what’s happening with you.

{jcomments on}

“The only unnatural sex act is that which you cannot perform.” – Alfred Kinsey


What: “Burnout Brenda” finds her calling and gets paid for it too.

Who: Brenda Haynes, still smokin’ at 36, lives with her parents in a basement apartment and works the bar at the family bowling alley.  Working class tough, Brenda realizes her life is aimless, but it’s hard to let go of a partying attitude.  Mom is still praying over her and Dad is a bit fuzzy; brother Richard, the married super star of the family, a DA with a solid conviction record and higher office ambitions, is still the condescending asshole he always was, except now he’s a hypocritical condescending asshole. Further accentuating Brenda’s pain are the divorce papers her ex keeps sending over (and she keeps burning) so he can marry his 22 yr. old girl friend, Crystal.

On Saturdays, Brenda temps at a Vet’s office acting much like an animal “whisperer.”  Less than patient with irritating humans, she has a remarkable ability to calm terrified and wounded animals, and it is while doing this for a dog in incredible pain that her abilities are noticed by Mark, the dog’s owner.  Mark remarks that Brenda might make an excellent therapist’s assistant and recommends that she contact Dr. Jason Lerner for a job.  Skeptical of her chances, especially given her spotty resume, Brenda, nevertheless, makes an appointment to see Dr. Lerner.

Dr. Lerner: I assume that Mark filled you in how we work here. Although under my direction, the therapeutic technique requires that you work one on one with the patients. Our approach is not for everyone, this is a very specialized field. I expect my support staff to be patient, compassionate, open, non-judgmental. Confidentiality is a must. Some of my patients are dealing with years of physical and emotional blocks that would be our job to try to help them transcend. It’s a tedious process that can also be extremely rewarding.

Over Happy Hour drinks at the neighborhood bar, Brenda gives Lila (her best friend) the good news.

Brenda does a little dance of excitement as she pulls out the training pamphlet Dr. Lerner gave her. She hands it to Lila.

Brenda: And all I have to do is take this training course. Five days, a breeze. And he’s gonna pay me ten bucks an hour while I’m taking the class.

Lila: Jackpot. Does he need any other assistants?...(reading) What’s SPT? Surrogate Partner Training. That’s weird, you’re not going to give your eggs or nothing, right?

Brenda: ‘Course not. It’s going to be therapeutic. You know, like I do with the animals, I guess. Comforting people who are upset or –

Lila looks up from the page, a serious look on her face.

Lila: -can’t get wood. Bren, this is a sex surrogate training program. You know, teaching people how to do it, have sex.

Brenda: Are you crazy, don’t be ridiculous.

Lila: (reading) “It is the surrogate’s responsibility to ensure protection against conception. Surrogates shall be responsible for adequate precautionary measures against the transmission of communicable diseases and infections.” (then) No wonder it pays a hundred krill an hour. The doc wants you to be his night nurse.

Brenda: Fuck, fuck, fuck. How did I not know this?

Lila: Is the doctor guy sleazy?

Brenda: Only hetero guy I’ve met who didn’t do the “I’m-not-looking-at-your-rack-I’m-really-listening” stare.

Lila: Wow, a professional, a real sex therapist. Says they’re the ones who refer patients out to the surrogates.

Brenda: No wonder he was talking about the job having a “social stigma”. (thinking) He must’ve thought that that guy Mark filled me in on the details.

Lila: A job fucking emotionally unstable people for money, some detail.

Brenda: (sunk) Jeez, I feel stupid. There goes fifty grand.

Brenda and Lila have a drink to the mishap as the bar fills with an array of men they grew up with. Lila comments about Brenda having dated half of them. Brenda looks around the room relating moments (we see in Flashbacks) from each of the relationships. Greg had a mommy complex, Bruno, a severe premature ejaculation problem, Iggy, unrealized homosexual tendencies. Brenda sighs at the memories as she describes the rest of the bar.

Brenda (cont.): Jerry with the “bad doggie” routine, Frank who could only do it with cartoons playing on the TV, and of course my ex with the Dutch fucking obsession.

Lila: Dutch fucking?

Brenda pantomimes intercourse between the cleavage.

Lila: (gets it) Oh. (then) You’re like a one stop for the sexually challenged.

Brenda lets out a caustic laugh but then quiets. She looks around the room again, a realization starting to take hold.

Brenda: Jesus, Lil. I’ve already been doing this sex therapy thing. For years now. And all I’ve got to show for it is this bottom-of-the-barrel Happy Hour Margarita.

And so Brenda sets out on a new career path, one for which she is eminently well qualified from the standpoint of empathy, listening skills, and (oh, yes) that other thing. Road blocks appear in the form of her arrogant, judgmental brother, he of the higher political ambitions, who threatens to use the long arm of the law to shut down the therapist; but having finally found something she is good at, Brenda also finds the evidence to stop her brother.

No Meaner Place: What starts out as a street-smart rollicking comedy segues nicely and naturally into a thoughtful (still funny) character dramedy touching on a subject that is both serious and misunderstood.  This is so edgy, so funny, so thought-provoking and so different from anything out there.  Now I’m as aware as, by now, you are that “so different from anything out there” seems to be the “kiss of death” rather than the “Eureka” moment, but still… Bird has written such a compellingly funny and serious pilot that it is inconceivable that Showtime didn’t snap this up, especially given the misfire (I’m assuming they realize that it is a misfire) of “The Secret Diary of a  Call Girl.”

Slutty blue collar girls are terrific fodder for the sitcom world, but rarely is an extra human dimension afforded them as Bird has done for her Brenda.  And, this is a real area of therapy, one that was prompted by the Kinsey Report and pioneered by Masters and Johnson in St. Louis.  From the series construction standpoint, Bird’s script is practically perfect as the 100 stories don’t just depend on Brenda and her patients because she has set up family conflict as well with the hypocritical overachieving brother, the ex-husband, and Brenda’s own personal dysfunction related to a personal sexual abuse history with a relative (hinted at in the pilot).  I don’t really care about polygamous husbands, Madison Avenue in the 60s (or even the 60s), sexually addicted college professors, or foul mouthed disgraced baseball players turned high school coaches – but I do care about this woman and her burgeoning career.

Life Lessons for Writers:  F*ck ‘em if they can’t take a joke, or maybe, in this case, just f*ck ‘em.

Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: I’m going to lead off in the usual way…HOW ON EARTH DID YOU COME UP WITH THIS SCENARIO?

Bird: An exec asked me to try to write something about an area that he felt no one had cracked, a show about a SEX THERAPIST. I was concerned that the whole therapy thing was played out on television but upon researching the topic found out that at no point, even during the most intensive of couple's therapy, does sex actually happen in a sex therapist’s office; just people talking about sex. I didn't find that very dramatic, but in the middle of my research I learned about sex surrogates and how they are the hands-on healers of the sex therapy world. In the same way a physical therapist aids an M.D. (the doctor diagnoses the physical problem and the physical therapist helps bring the patient's body back to health), a sex surrogate assists a PhD sex psychologist by helping the patient work through their sexual issues. While I found that world fascinating, I was still cautious about the whole sex-as-titillation aspect as a premise since I'd never been a fan of sex for sex’s sake in story telling. Having been an actress and somewhat of a feminist for years, I’ve always really taken issue with how women are portrayed in film and television.

Now, a few years ago I had written a spec half hour comedy about a blousy, big breasted blue collar girl named Brenda who was a bit of a ne'er-do-well; sort of a blue collar American version of AB FAB - completely Un PC.  She was in her thirties, partied A LOT and lived in her parents' basement apartment as many adults still do in the Midwest.  My research confirmed that the world of sex surrogacy is a bit of the Wild West. There is a certification program that most surrogates take but the field is wide open as to who can become a surrogate. The idea of someone like Brenda, someone so plain spoken with a street smart, visceral education about sex, partnering with a Harvard educated PhD and helping heal people who are sexually wounded--well my head just exploded and I had to write this script and did it on spec. It had become a different show than the one I was initially asked to develop by the exec.

Neely: I went to college in St. Louis and always made it a point to attend the annual Masters and Johnson sex lecture.  I remember Dr. Masters talking about arousal in men and women and his comment (I’m probably misremembering) that readiness in men was an erection and readiness in women was usually only during ovulation but could be overcome by two martinis. How aware of their work were you when you wrote this?

Bird: I researched sex surrogacy tirelessly before writing “Love Machine.” Masters and Johnson pioneered the field and it gained some ground in the 70’s but then faded away. It’s still mainly found in Northern California and in upstate New York where the women surrogates are more in the “earth mother” age group. It's truly a fascinating and very misunderstood area of therapy. I think some of our deepest feelings about intimacy, self worth and control become apparent in how we express ourselves sexually. I educated myself as much as I could so I would come to the subject from a grounded, informed place. The most moving article I read was written by a thirty five year old polio victim.  He had such a severe spine deformity that it prohibited him from even being able to sit up.   Still a virgin, he had never been touched by another human being other than in a medical capacity or a familial hug. He went to see a sex surrogate to try to learn how to experience himself as a sensual being. He wrote that on his way home from the session he felt essentially transformed - he had finally become an “adult”. Never having had a sexual experience is what he felt separated him from all other adults, not his extreme deformity. The tenderness and patience his surrogate treated him with, his discovery of himself - well, the story broke me into pieces. I thought if I can keep the in-your-face humor Brenda naturally exudes and couple it with stories of this emotional magnitude, I will have a series I would be in heaven to write. The bull’s-eye I aim for in my writing is comedy that unexpectedly unzips your heart. This premise was the mother lode.

Neely: Brenda is one of the most developed characters I’ve read in a long time.  It’s so easy to stereotype and ridicule blue collar women – always the sluts with a heart of gold (not that Brenda isn’t that also), or characters of quiet desperation.  Brenda is unapologetic about her life choices but cognizant that most of them have been poor.  Do you know any Brendas?

Bird: I do. I grew up for a time in a working class neighborhood in Chicago. What I love about a lot of people from working class backgrounds are their survival traits, this amazing resourcefulness that has nothing to do with hand wringing about their lack of funds or wishful thinking about wanting more. They just get on with it and hammer out the best life they can for themselves.  That’s why Brenda has a propensity for buying furniture she can't afford and then taking it back within the 90 day return policy so she can keep redecorating her apartment on the limited funds she has. She gets her Pottery Barn lifestyle without the resources or education normally required (there is actually a 90-day return policy at a lot of mid level retailers). Kim, one of my friends growing up, was my inspiration for Brenda - D cup, loud mouth, big partier. She’d wear 6 inch heels whether she was walking in five feet of snow or trotting through sand at the beach.

Another aspect of this show that excites me is her world. Exploring the chemistry of melting pot neighborhoods – the extended families that are formed between immigrants from places as varied as Puerto Rico, Poland, Armenia, Central America. I don’t watch everything but from what I’ve seen there is a plethora of upper class characters in one hour dramas. When two thirds of the “franchise-model” are doctors and lawyers, well, that’s a lot of six-figure, well educated lives we’re peering into. No one is worried about survival basics like rent and car insurance, while that’s a real concern for the majority of Americans. I don’t want to bore people with showcasing their daily worries; I just want to allow their lives to be represented, hopefully in an entertaining and moving way.

Neely: I love how I expected this story to go one way and then it veers in a completely different direction.  The sexual dysfunction vignettes are handled with delicacy and compassion, giving Brenda added dimension.  Is this going to be an “Educating Rita” where Brenda eventually outgrows her friends?

Bird: Thank you for your kind words about that. I wanted to make sure there was a humorous yet very human aspect to her first sex therapy sessions. I don't see Brenda growing out of her working class background per se and certainly not thinking she’s superior to her old crowd. The tension between her work world and home life will be a constant in the show - the pull between Dr Lerner's cerebral sensibility and her blue collar gut instincts.

Neely: “Educating Rita” isn’t about Rita becoming better than everyone around her; it’s about growing when others don’t.

Bird: I haven’t seen that film, but I will.

Neely: Let’s talk about the implied sexual abuse, presumably by her uncle.  How were you going to try to integrate that while still trying to keep a lighter tone? Obviously Brenda’s sexual inadequacies (she’s never had an orgasm) are part of this.  You also strongly hint that it involves her Uncle Frank and also possibly barfly Ronnie, he of the really bad toupee.

Bird: The man that molested Brenda will be a mystery that runs through the first season. Her molestation, as is often the case in early childhood trauma, will initially start to bleed through in her dream state. This has happened to a few of my friends.  One out of three girls and one out of five boys will be sexually abused before the age of eighteen in this country; ninety percent of them by someone they know and only thirty five percent of child molestation is reported. This is epidemic and needs to be talked about, understood and dramatized. Doing it in the context of a dramedy might make it more palatable. Again, this is certainly a C story in this series but I'd like to bring to light the kind of unconscious behaviors that result from early sexual abuse, even just one instance of it. Many of my friends have had this happen to them, both men and women. One friend became a prostitute for a while; several resorted to sleeping around A LOT as teenagers and young women, another became a sex addict and some have experienced milder pathologies but unhealthy behaviors all the same. The idea of your body being connected to your soul and worth is altered until you devote some time to putting the pieces back together; initially, the personality kind of splinters off in order to survive the ordeal.

As with my friends, people who are innately funny deal with even their darker issues with humor, perhaps edgy humor, but if that’s their default it will be there. So I don’t worry about Brenda becoming too heavy and morbid as she goes through her awakening. She’s a fighter, she’s gonna fight her way through whatever she has to to get to the other side.

Neely: I especially like how you shut down, at least temporarily, the brother’s attempt to prosecute or at least harass Dr. Lerner and effectively get Brenda fired so the problem goes away.  I assume this was not going to be the last of the brother’s attempts.

Bird: No, of course not. There will be some really deep issues and tensions that will surface between Brenda and her older brother which is often the case when children share a secret about abuse, even if it is only at an unconscious level. There is always the guilt about not being able to protect your sibling, a reaction that can vary greatly in the long run. There’s a dynamic that has to be played out, not to mention the basic oil and water nature of their personalities. It’s not going to be all darkness and gloom though. These two share a lot in common that will be realized as well.

Neely: So who did this get taken to and what was the reaction?

Bird: It went to Showtime and one exec completely fell in love with it but her boss didn’t take to the premise but really responded to the writing. One other network was concerned with the sexual aspect of the premise. In my view, the show is less about sex and all about an exploration of our psycho-sexual selves. The actual sex in the show is about five percent of the pilot script and body parts are purposefully written to be out of frame and do not need to be seen to be effective story-wise. (This isn’t a show about a girl banging her way through life; she’s trying to help people.)

What I find curious is that there are quite a few cable shows where the male lead sleeps with as many as a handful of women in every episode; often using them, lying to them, leaving them with nothing. This is a show where a strong female character has sex with men and actually helps them understand themselves, leaves them better than she found them. I’m not sure why that premise is being perceived as taboo?

Neely: Any substantive notes?

Bird: No.

Neely: Was there anything that was going to make this more palatable without stripping this of its originality and sharpness?

Bird: There is barely any actual sex seen in the show and she’s not cutting people into pieces or anything so….I wouldn’t know where to start to “mild” this up.  To take away the sex surrogate premise, well, that kind of kills the originality of the piece to me. Sex surrogacy is the only way an uneducated, streety girl like Brenda would have a chance to work in a bona fide healing profession alongside a PhD. As I said, sex surrogacy is one of the last gray areas left, really.

Neely: I would love to believe that there is still life here – especially since this could easily fit the brands of AMC, Showtime, HBO, and FX. There’s even a new premium channel called EPIX that does not yet seem branded but is looking for something that will put them on the map.  Since this is the kind of thing Chris Albrecht would have jumped at when he was at HBO, surely he would give this a serious look.

Bird: It’s just gone out to some of the places you mentioned and we’re waiting to hear back. It’s attracting attention to me as a writer which is also a nice thing. I have a deep affinity for the spit and soul of this character, her world and the beautiful brokenness of her clients. Instead of writing a much safer franchise spec, I went with something off track but straight from the heart; a show I think will appeal to women and men. Brenda is a “take no shit” kind of woman who also has a lot of male sensibilities, and face it, she’s stacked…like that doesn’t pull in an audience. Plus there’s the added sex education aspect as we'll go into some areas of sexuality that are quite fascinating, funny as well as just plain strange.

Neely: I remember long ago when I saw my mother had a copy of The Joy of Sex on her nightstand and I gave her a hard time. Her response? “Are you so good you couldn’t use a few hints?”

Not a great segue, but what about you?  You’re an established actor in film and television and an Oscar-nominated singer/songwriter. How did you get started?

Bird: I started out by studying music, acting and writing. I was in a comedy group here in LA in my teens and started writing for them as well as trained tirelessly with some brilliant Actors Studio teachers. I was lucky that my acting career started to take off in my late teens soon after I arrived in LA. Since then I’ve had a steady career working in series, mini series and films, sometimes starring, sometimes supporting, but always mindful of the general message of the projects I’m involved in. I’ve also done a lot of recurring work including “The West Wing” over all seven seasons which was an absolute joy. I’ve done a lot of character roles though I don't look like what some would consider a character actress. The acting has really informed my writing as I’m about the minutia of a character’s life, their routine, their moments alone. And I’m a stickler about actor-proofing dialogue though I’ve been known to dump whole speeches in exchange for one moment of behavior. How, to me, the acting training really influences the writing.

Neely: Let’s talk more about the song writing.  How did that come about? Do you always perform your own work or have you written for others?

Bird: I write songs for myself or when asked by a director, for their film or television show, though strangely Cher covered a ballad of mine a ways back (my music is very un-Cher-like). I've been writing songs since I was 15; studied music for a few years then was signed to a publishing deal with Warner Chappell. My writing songs for film and television happened after I met Paul Haggis. I acted (under my birth name Kathleen York) on his series “Family Law” but he had heard me (Bird York) on KCRW. I gave him some more music to listen to and he really responded to what I do in that medium and asked me to write all of the songs for his last season on that show. Since then I co-wrote, produced and performed the theme song for his film “Crash,” (where the Oscar nom came from) as well as other films, most recently “Seven Pounds” and the soon to be released film “Dumbstruck.” Other television shows include “House,” “CSI,” “Nip Tuck,”, “Everwood” and last week, “American Idol.” One of my favorite things is writing lyrics and composing music (songs) to picture, or to script which is how I've worked with Haggis. I write the song understanding the concerns of the screenwriter, actor, film-maker. I wouldn’t want someone stomping all over my story or acting performance with lyrics and showboaty music production. It’s about transparency. Or as I put it once, the writer, filmmaker, actors and crew made the baby and if I’m the theme song that plays under the big emotional montage at the end (which is often where my songs are placed) my job is to just gently assist the baby being delivered. To invisibly push the lump in the audience’s throat through to their tear ducts. Music is such an immediate art form. I love it.

Neely: With your writing, are you looking to leave acting behind, or writing to expand your choice of roles?

Bird: No, I'm not looking to quit acting. That said, people have assumed that I write to expand my own choices but that’s not how my story muse works. I don’t write to get something, I write to give something. If it makes sense for me to act in one of my projects, it literally is an afterthought. I write purely; the characters speak to me and I write down what they say. Obviously if I get my own show picked up, that will be where all my attention will go, towards writing and producing the best show I have in me. Once it’s up and has found its “feet”, of course I’d love to play some really rich, amazing character role as long as other aspects of the show wouldn’t suffer.

My whole life is about passion. I follow my heart, hence the name of my production company, “Guided by Voices, Inc.” I love writing, love making music and love acting, however I'm a quality over quantity type gal. I'd rather write a spec script I love than star in a project I don't find has much merit.  My whole life has been about following what my makes my heart fly... it hasn't led me wrong yet.

I've been lucky to have been allowed to shadow direct while I was acting on “The West Wing” as well as a few other shows. I've worked as an actor on over a hundred films and television shows and worked in post production making music for films and TV. I completed the WGA’s Show Runners Training Program last year, which, by the way, is amazing! The ultimate joy would be to combine everything I’ve done thus far, on my own show. “Love Machine” would be such a wonderful way to utilize my abilities and prior experience. If it turns out the buyers aren’t quite accepting of a premise like Love Machine, I've got other stories up my sleeve.

Neely: Was there a role for you in “Love Machine”?

Bird: As I said, my main focus initially would be writing and producing the show. Perhaps down the road, I'd like to write a recurring character who is the Obe Wan Kenobe of sex surrogates; someone that Brenda goes to for advice. I can see her already - mystical yet down to earth, dispensing wisdom about sexuality, men, life.

Neely: Who would you see as Brenda?

Bird: Brenda needs to have a kind of effortless. working class sexuality. The kind of woman who could walk into the cafeteria of General Motors and every guy there wants to bang her. Tall and skinny ain’t gonna cut it. I’d start there and then find an incredibly talented actress. Actors casting actors is always an interesting process. One thing for sure, NO prima donnas. I act, and I’m good at it; actor and ass doesn’t have to be inclusive. I don’t understand why so many television producers hire and tolerate bad behavior when there are so many really gifted actors out there who are emotionally balanced people. I think producers need to ask a few more questions, really check an actor out before hiring them for a lead. If you’re applying as a stock person for a major chain store they do a personality eval. Why not at least get a feel for a person beyond their acting skills if you’re going to be creatively married to them for (hopefully) years?

Neely: What’s up next?

Bird: I'm just completing a pilot for FTVS, my next CD is very close to completion, and I'm about to start writing a rather large concept feature. Life is good.

Neely: I’m really excited to follow your career.  Please let me know if you find more traction with this pilot – I think it’s an absolute killer.

{jcomments on}

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“I think that you have to believe in your destiny; that you will succeed, you will meet a lot of rejection and it is not always a straight path, there will be detours - so enjoy the view.” – Michael York


What: Ben and Harper arrive in Joliet, IL, their destination. Needing some new clothes, they do a bit of shopping. The choice of store and sales clerk (Whitney) is no coincidence.

INT. DRESS FOR LESS - CASHIER – LATER

Whitney ringing them up –

Whitney: Take it you guys don't live around here?

Harper: I live in Chicago. He's from... up there.

Ben: Up north.

Harper: Where it's calm and peaceful and everybody's happy all the time...

Ben: Canada.

Whitney: Never been. Not that I've been anywhere.

Ben: You should go.

Whitney: Don't know anybody in Canada.

Ben: I meant anywhere.

She crinkles her brow, who is this guy? The register coughs –

Whitney: Price check -- be right back...

He watches her go. Harper watches him watching.

Harper: Damn. You want a piece of that?

Ben: Excuse me?

Harper: Can angels even do it?! Isn't that against some major Bible commandment thing?

Ben: I'm not -- and I wouldn't even if I was -- which I'm not –

Harper: If you knocked her up, would the kid be an X-men?

Ben: Inappropriate.

A Continued Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: Let’s to back to the beginning, or rather your beginning. Did you know you always wanted to write?

Brandon: I always knew I wanted to be in this industry.

Neely: Why?

Brandon: Unfortunately, and I say it with a smile, I grew up in the industry outside of the industry.  My father, Joe Camp, was a writer, director, producer in Dallas, Texas.  He created the character “Benji,” the shaggy dog, if you recall the movie. But he did all of it independently, completely outside of Hollywood. I grew up on sets, so I was cursed from the beginning.  Both my parents begged me, begged me to please go be a doctor, a lawyer, a biologist or an anthropologist, go be anything but this.

Oh well, like father, like son, I suppose. I didn’t know any different. I missed the first grade because I was in Greece where my parents were shooting for a year. Then all of a sudden I was dumped back in school wondering “what the hell is this? I don’t understand this environment at all.” I was used to roaming around with extras and eating off catering trucks. It was a very strange thing for me to land back in the “real” world.

I told my parents that, unfortunately, whether they liked it or not, they had cursed me with this industry.

Neely: To discover the romance as a 6-year old is hard to compete with.

Brandon: It truly is.

Neely: What’s your background – college, major, horoscope?

Brandon: I'm a Gemini, I like coconut ice cream.

I went to school at Northwestern in Chicago. I majored in Speech. I did not major in radio/television/film; as a side note, I was not accepted into Northwestern's super duper screenwriting program. I still have the rejection letter. But I did take one radio/television/film class and dropped out after the very first day because it was just entirely too artsy for me. The professor, and I use the term loosely, came out and asked us to introduce ourselves as a camera. As in, what is it that we’re looking at on the wall? Of course everyone in the room is talking about the fact that they’re a 16mm black and white camera and they’re focusing on the thermostat that resembles… You get the picture. I left, never to return.

Neely: How did you get that first entertainment-related job?

Brandon: My brother had worked with Scott Rudin.  I interned for Scott one summer during college, then he asked me to come work for him after college and I did.

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“Don’t be confused that my interest in religion, faith and spirituality is driven by any sense of faith or spirituality of my own.” – Peter Jennings

What: Ben, an unwilling celestial guide, has been given the task of “saving” Harper, abused foster child and old beyond her years, despite the constant presence of her stuffed dog Ragamuffin.

Who: For good or ill, we are all watched over by celestial spirits who guide us toward light or dark depending... Ben, one of those spirits, has been condemned to his afterlife as an angel without wings, so to speak, until such time that he has sufficiently redeemed himself for sins committed before he died. He has been assigned the difficult case of Harper, a foster child who has been forced by her foster father Knox to collect drug debts in the neighborhood. On one such errand she inadvertently witnessed a murder committed by Knox’s gangbanger drug handlers. More importantly, they have seen her and she must now run for her life.

Harper, injured while running away, is visited in the hospital by Ben who already knows way too much about her. Realizing that the gang has tracked her to the hospital, Ben spirits her away (this time in the physical sense) but not before he is shot by Harper’s enemies.  Harper, no fool, knows something is up by the lack of blood from Ben’s wounds; that and the fact that he’s not dead. She has questions, lots of questions and Ben, himself, needs guidance.

INT./EXT. AMTRAK TRAIN - TRAVELING – NIGHT

Ben nestles a sleeping Harper into a seat. Rests Ragamuffin beside. Calmly sits at her side.  Listens to SLEEPY SNORES. She curls into him. Grasping him. Melting him.

Ben: I'm just some guy in an elevator, stuck between floors.

Ben stares out the window.

Harper’s way ahead of him.

EXT. JOLIET TRAIN STATION – DAY

Steel town-turned-exurb. Harper follows Ben to a food cart. Eyes him as he buys coffee, juice,  pastries. She edges up, swipes a fork -- stabs him in the hand.

Ben: What the--?!

She removes the fork. No wound. Not even a scratch.

Harper: Why didn't it leave one of those black things?

The COFFEE GUY raising a brow. Ben pays, guides her off.

Ben: It wasn't an act of malice. The marks are from wounds that could've killed me.

Harper: But didn't -- you better explain this shit straight up or swear to God I'll scream for the  cops. (no response) COPS! HELP -- I NEED COPS!

He mutes her. Sighs, sits on a bench. Points up. Up, up.

Harper: What? You from Mars??

Ben: Little higher. Juice?

Harper: I don't want any goddamn juice.

Ben: Careful with the whole name-in-vain thing. That one's true.

Harper: You're saying you--?! As if. Then where are your wings?

Ben: Don't have any. I work with the ground troops.

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“What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he's around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I'm semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing... he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance... Just a tiny bit.” – Aaron Altman on network news anchors (“Broadcast News” written by James L. Brooks)

INT. TRAIN’S HOUSE - LIVING ROOM

Davis wanders as Train heads to the bar and opens a decanter.

Davis: I think you might make the front page tomorrow. On Neptune.

Train: Print journalism. That’s where it’s really at. That’s a man’s job. Not this live-at-five can-you-see-my-nosehair nonsense we do.

He walks over to Davis with drinks.

Davis: You’re never going to convince me you’re a misanthrope, Bill. Try as you might. You wouldn’t bother if you didn’t care.

Train: Here’s to play acting then.

He clanks glasses and takes a slug back. Davis looks suddenly confused and worried at Train drinking.

Train: Jesus, little Sally, just relax.

He motions him to drink on. Davis sips, quickly appeased.

Train: We’re doing the Dean Martin sneak.

Davis: I actually hate apple juice.

Train: Commie.

Davis sets the drink down.

Davis: Bill, we may have gotten away with something today but that doesn’t mean we have carte blanche forever.

Train: Nope.

Davis: Nor should we. It’s my job to fight for you - blood and guts - and I will, but you better be righteous.

Train: You think I’m not?

Davis
: I think you want a slug of whiskey so bad you’re a hair away from trashing the place. I think you want to jump down on the field and argue with the umpire on every play. I think you want to beat every politician’s face into a bloody pulp. But it’s the part of you that is just able to  yourself from doing all those things that I want to work with. That’s the mad genius. The other guy is a side show attraction. And the instant I feel like I’m living in a satire I’m out of here.

Train listens to the man. Probably happy to hear these words but never in a million years ready to say so.

Davis: It’s important that you understand that I have standards too and they’re no less important in this thing we’re doing.

Train: I understand. I can respect that.

Thrown by the compliance Davis nods an uncertain ‘okay’.

Davis: All right then. (uncomfortable beat) I’ll let you go back to crank calling or whatever it is you do.

Train nods ‘okay’ and the two men awkwardly begin to part.

Train: Hey Davis...

Davis turns back, waits for it. And waits for it.

Train: Actually I have nothing. That just felt like a moment when I should add the one last thing, but...

Davis: (uncomfortable beat) Okay.

He hangs a half beat then heads out the door. Train lingers in his big empty house. Looks around, uncertain of what to do. He paces around. Finally he stops in the middle of the living room, seems to be thinking over something.

Train: Yeah, I’m going to need a hobby.

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“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” – Howard Beale (“Network” by Paddy Chayefsky)

What: Bill Train, respected lead anchor for a major network, appears to have gone off the rails because he has begun verbally, and in some cases physically, attacking congressional hypocrites and corporate liars.

Who: Bill Train is causing increasing consternation at his network with his brutal honesty and refusal to follow the directives and mandates issued by corporate executives.

Int. News Studio – Evening

Train: These people, these men and women that declare themselves leaders, however passively, they ask something of us...they ask us to believe. Maybe the hardest thing possible. Who are you? Why do you deserve me and my trust? Why should I give you one single moment of my time? And in an instant, in just a hint...they show us that feck of hope. That greatness lying dormant. They show us possibility.

The voice from above. It almost comes from nowhere:

Voice: (O.C.) That’s great, Bill. You’re the voice. We believe. Take us home.

Train pauses hard. The camera doesn’t break. It almost seems to be asking for the capper. Train breaks right.

Train: Congressman Wyatt...

A 50-year-old basks in the accolades, however faux-humbly. A head tilt, a slight blush.

Train: ...in a landscape constantly riddled with paranoia, with injustice, with outright malice...how do you find yourself in a position to even pretend to represent the will of the people?

Congressman Wyatt doesn’t hesitate a beat.

Congressman Wyatt: Well, that’s easy Bill. I don’t pretend. I live and die by my constituency. They are my voice.

Train dwells on this like holy writ. A hard turn back to the camera.

Train: Congressman Gregory Wyatt, vox populi. I’m William Train. I tell you the news. Without bias, and without guile. Good night.

Theme music starts to play. Pleasant and familiar. Train grins passively as the lights change and the camera swoops out. Congressman Wyatt smiles in the fading TV glow.

Voice: (O.C.) Pulling out. You nailed it, Bill. We’re good in five, four, three...

Camera is back and we see the full newsroom studio. Train waits at the desk for the all clear.

Voice: (O.C.) ...two, one...and we’re clear.

Train rears a fist back and DECKS Congressman Wyatt full on. Nearly knocks him out of his seat.

Train: You try that shit in my news room again and I’ll knock you on your ass in front of that half-wit constituency of yours!

Wyatt is shocked stupid, hand to jaw.

Congressman Wyatt: What the hell...?

Int. News Studio – Control Booth

Paul Davis, 40, the voice in the sky, but really the handler, blanches with all too familiar horror.

Davis: Oh, Christ...SOMEBODY! SOMEBODY! (into a mic) Stop Bill!

Through the glass booth an intimidated young line producer motions hands out.

Line Producer: (from Mic) How?

Davis: Use a tranc gun!

INT. NEWS STUDIO – CONTINUOUS

Train looms over the stunned Congressman.

Train: You want to pump somebody from behind and then look them square in the eye after you’re done and tell them it’s ‘cuz you’re their pal you go over to one of those little Ted Turner shouting monkey shows!

Congressman Wyatt: You’re out of your mind!

All the producers and grips are baffled. Train bristles as Wyatt’s handlers and the line producer come rushing out.

Train: I’m out of my mind!? I’m not the one out stumping for peace, justice, and the American way and then snookering my campaign manager while my postpartum wife’s at home hiding in the closet.

All look aghast, including, yes, the foxy young campaign manager that helps Wyatt up.

Train: (to the fox) Yes, that would be you, sugar. You’re the king’s whore.

The line producer pulls Train back while Wyatt and his crew scurry out of the room. Close

This latest incident, of which recently there have been many, brings the network suits out in force. Meeting with Train’s producer, Davis, an ultimatum is given – get Train back under control within a week or heads will roll, and not just Train’s. Hedging the networks bets, one of the executives courts the weekend anchor, Charles Dancy, slightly younger, much prettier and considerably dimmer – just what the network is looking for. Dancy, reluctant to nudge Train out of the way, has been fielding offers from other networks.

 

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“When you’re down & out, there’s no meaner place to live than Hollywood” – Dominick Dunne


See below for a CONVERSATION WITH BRIAN ROSS

God decided to take the devil to court and settle their differences once and for all. When Satan heard this, he laughed and said, "And where do you think you're going to find a lawyer?"

What: Dead lawyers who may, at one time in life, have shown promise as human beings are given a chance to redeem themselves in a parallel universe on their way up or down where, in the bodies of their former selves at the time they “lost their way;” they will now play for the opposing team - prosecutors are now defenders, defenders now prosecutors.  Their jobs – to argue for or against second chances for humans on the cusp of finality.  Their success or failure in this new guise will dictate their ultimate “stop.”

Who: Gaby Munroe, a recently deceased 72 year old prosecutor, is perplexed but nevertheless thrilled to discover when passing a mirror that she is, once again, 26 years old and gorgeous.  Gaby, who won her first case at age 26 and continued on to win all of her cases over the next 40 years, 136 cases in all, knew that a number of the defendants were innocent but that justice would have cut into her record; everything was secondary to her career.  The beginning of her path to redemption will be her defense of Michael Chapman, a recently jilted young man whose life hangs in the balance, literally and figuratively, as he is frozen in time, about to fly off a mountain precipice on his motorcycle.  Investigating Michael Chapman’s life, Gaby discovers a long string of poor romantic choices.  Not a bad sort, but always choosing flash over substance, Michael found himself abandoned at the aisle by his fiancée; distraught, he sped off on his motorcycle.  Opposing counsel is Ewan McKattraig, 60, a law school hero of Gaby’s in her former, or should we just say “life” who is less admirable than she could have imagined, and Ronald McKattraig, 10, Ewan’s grandson and former partner.  Ronald first went astray of his potential power for justice and balance at boarding school in the 5th grade in a case involving a teacher’s missing thong underwear; it was downhill from there.  Present age notwithstanding, he is a formidable competitor.

Gaby presents an impressive defense that Michael, a physician of great promise, deserves one more chance at life in general and romance in particular.  The McKattraigs are decidedly against giving anyone so prone to poor choices another chance.  Listening to arguments and presiding at the bench is…God, who is fine with being called “Your Honor” as opposed to “Your Holiness,” which He considers a bit too papal.  If a miracle is won, it will be accompanied by trick conditions that must be fulfilled by the defense attorney, in order that the miracle not look miraculous.

No Meaner Place: I loved the sly humor and especially the overall concept of a series-long lawyer joke.  I have no idea why this script didn’t create more buzz as it is clever, well written and original (could that be why?).  Perhaps because Ross’s previous credits had been in MOWs and there is a tendency to pigeon-hole writers and not let them out of their cages (and yes the pun was intended) he didn’t get the read he deserved.  Lack of representation for a time may also have played a part, but luckily Ross now has great representation by the Rothman-Brecher Agency.  Still, this script points out another problem – that of how networks, studios and even audiences perceive the legal profession - with earth-shattering importance.  Every year one or more legal shows premier and rarely do any of them exhibit any humor.  “L.A. Law,” often delved into the quirks of the law and human foibles with magical humorous moments, something David Kelley also did with "Boston Legal."  Kelley was often criticized for the off-the-wall situations and characters found on “Ally McBeal,” but that was the whole point; comedies, by nature (keeping in mind that “Ally McBeal” won an Emmy in the comedy category) jump the shark all the time.  When a panel of 9 lawyers, 2 scholars and a critic were asked by the ABA journal to pick the top 25 television law shows, the only comedies chosen were “Ally McBeal” and “Night Court.”  In fairness, “Harvey Birdman” a Hanna Barbera creation on Adult Swim also made the top 25; so lawyers may, actually, have a sense of humor (or they’re watching the Cartoon Network with their kids).  But seriously, doesn’t anyone remember “The Associates” created by James Brooks, Charlie Hauck, Ed Weinberger and Stan Daniels?!

Both the absurdity and humor of lawyers condemned to Purgatory in arguing against their nature is hilarious with Greek Sisyphean overtones; that God is the judge makes it juicier and brings to mind the delightful interchange about God between Dudley Moore’s Stanley and Peter Cook’s George Spiggot aka Beelzebub in “Bedazzled.”

Stanley Moon: Apart from the way He moves, what's God really like? I mean, what colour is He?
 George Spiggott: He's all colours of the rainbow, many-hued.
Stanley Moon: But He is English, isn't He?
 George Spiggott: Oh yes. Very upper class.

Of course God might be a She.

Life Lessons for Writers:  Lawyer jokes are more popular than Legal Shows, but apparently lawyer jokes don’t sell advertising.

Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: Where on earth, or whatever, did this come from?

Brian: The genesis was a call I got from my agent at the time saying one of the networks wanted to do a series on miracles, and still hadn't found it.  I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, yuck, not another earnest show about angels and providence and other general sappiness.  And then I thought of twelfth grade and my English teacher putting "corn" on the board as a homework essay topic.  There were a lot of pages handed in about golden sheaves waving on the prairies, but only mine on this robust grain's journey through the digestive tract.  So what if I absolutely had to come up with a show on miracles?  What would it be?  My favorite show at the time (and still one of my all time favorites) was Boston Legal. I really admired the combination of genuine substance and import surrounded by the most outrageous irreverence.  I wondered if I could do the same sort of thing for miracles, and create an anti-sappy show about divine providence that would leave people both thinking and laughing (or at least goofily smiling) at the end.  I came up with a pitch that my agency really liked and we took it straight to the network.

Neely: What was the reaction?  What kind of comments did you get?

Brian: The pitch went great--the execs got it, laughed and asked all the right questions--but in the end they said it was just too out-there for them at that time.   We pitched it to a second network, whose wheelhouse we also thought it was in, and got basically the same reaction.

Neely: So how did you come to actually write the pilot?

Brian: Around the same time, a friend who heads up drama at one of the studios was encouraging me to write something original, without a sale in mind, just something to introduce my work to drama execs who didn’t know me yet.  As these characters were now living and breathing in my head, and I was constantly getting excited about directions the series could go in, it was really the only thing I wanted to write, and so I did.

Neely: And how was the reaction to that?

Brian: The initial response was very positive and gratifying (but that doesn’t however, put any food on the table!).  I was really glad that I had written it and that people out of the MOW world were becoming familiar with something that was purely my voice.  There were a few of the vague "liked the writing, but not for us" comments, but most--after claims of looking for really original, out-of-the-box stuff--were of the "we want something more grounded" variety.  I remember one exec thought there should have been more "law", i.e., time spent in the courtroom, and less "character stuff" (I never quite got that one for a series, unless it was an attempt to make it a more traditional legal-procedural), while another suggested just the opposite.  And then there was the exec who liked the premise, but didn't feel the script was the right "approach" to it.  When pushed for what that might be, however, we never got anything concrete.

Neely: And what's happening with the script now?

Brian: Well, it's interesting that you ask.  In this climate of cost-cutting, there's been a lot of interest in international co-productions, and as I'm both Canadian and British, and as the script deals with a type of universal law not tied to any particular country, there have been some recent inquiries.  I don't want to jinx anything, so I'll have to keep you posted.

I'd love to have your comments.

Next up: "The Eastmans"

{jcomments on}

“Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.” Will Rogers

 


 

Bedlam, New York by Carla Robinson

What: Barry Plumb, deputy to City Councilman Ted Lackey becomes collateral damage when Lackey is forced to resign because of intertwining corruption and sex scandals.

Who: Barry Plumb’s first order of business is to try to guide the press conference at which Councilman Lackey announces his resignation with the usual stipulation that the press will not be allowed to ask Lackey any questions.

Councilman Lackey: My focus is on my family and on my incredible wife, Carol. I am blessed to have her by my side, and it is my deepest intention to make amends to her – and to my constituents. Thank you.

Councilman Lackey takes his wife by the arm and begins to lead her away when another reporter shouts –

Reporter #3: This question’s for Carol!

Carol Lackey glances at Barry, and her husband. She scowls at his grip on her arm. She steels herself, breaks free of his hold, and with chin held high, faces the reporters.

Carol Lackey: What do you want to know?

An awkward silence permeates the room.

Reporter #3: Do you forgive your husband for the lying and cheating and for putting you through this public spectacle?

***

Carol grins at the reporter.

Carol Lackey: I married Ted in law school. His school, not mine. Actually, I quit school to work and pay for his education. I knew it was a worthy investment in a… worthy man.

Carol eyes her husband, and her grin becomes a sneer.

Carol Lackey: Of course, I didn’t know at the time that what I was really investing in was pay-by-the-hour motel rooms, sex toys, and satin undergarments that must have been assembled by a ten-year-old because they seem to be lacking a crotch!

Carol pulls a pair of crotch-less panties from her purse and waves them at her husband.

Carol Lackey: I found them in the minivan, Ted! And guess what? They’re not mine!

Barry: Mrs. Lackey…

Barry tries to restrain Carol, but she elbows him. Hard.

Carol Lackey: Back off, Barry. (pointing at Ted) I watched this man ascend the ranks from executive aide to councilman to council president. And now that he has led me to the pinnacle of abject humiliation, I am going to take him for every penny he’s got! (Carol snarls at Barry) And I’m gonna punish every son-of-a-bitch who helped him along the way!

And so ends the brief and glorious political career of Barry Plumb; or, rather, his career, such as it was, in the metropolitan hub of the country – Manhattan. His mentor and the Council’s senior advisor, Patrick Conover, explains to Barry that he should have fired him earlier when he first got wind of the way things were being run in Lackey’s office; but he didn’t because he felt that Barry had one of the best political minds he’d ever seen, albeit a naïveté that was shocking.

Patrick offers Barry a chance to redeem himself with a new job supervising the mayoral election, following the sudden death of the former mayor, in the small town of Bedem in upstate Saratoga County, population 500. Reluctantly, with his assistant and former girl friend Anna in tow, they head for Bedem, a quaint little village with a “plaza of simple brick and colonial buildings, with a taller building serving as the town hall at the center.”

Barry: It’s like East Dog Patch, USA.

Anna: I’d stop whining, Barry. You’re lucky to have this job.

Barry: I’m not whining. I know I’m lucky. To have any job. I’m just saying – let’s get in, get someone elected mayor, and get out of town.

Anna: We don’t even know who the candidates are.

Barry: In a population of five hundred, how many can there be?

And therein lies the rub, as it seems that at least 200 of them are running for the position, or more specifically 20, all Independents – there will be no Republican or Democratic run-off – a daunting prospect as it is entirely possible that it could take months before any one candidate garners a majority of the votes. Pole-axed…

Barry: People, what happened to the two party system in Bedem, New York?

One man in the back of the room chimes in –

Man: It didn’t take.

Barry: But it’s how things are done. The party system is the standard in American politics. It’s the cornerstone of the Constitution.

Otto: Bull-puckey. The Constitution was shaped by principles that constrained the party system.

An elderly woman, Eunice, nods her head.

Eunice: He’s right, Plumb. Read the Federalist Papers.

Barry: I have read the…

Jan: Look… We’re all familiar with Alexis de Tocqueville and his impact on nineteenth century political thought… But Barry’s new here, and he may not be aware that Monsieur de Tocqueville wrote the first draft of his thesis on tyranny right in this very room.

Barry takes a moment. He’s impressed.

**

Anna: (nudges Barry) Not bad for East Dog Patch.

Otto: A host of good people came through Bedem on their way to Albany, and parts south. Each one made his own contribution, but in the end, they all remind us of the same thing… It’s people who get elected. Not parties.

Sophisticated Barry has been outclassed and outranked by the local yokels; a situation that will continue, despite his so-called brilliant political mind, when representatives from Albany announce plans to revoke the city charter because, with the death of the former mayor, the population has slipped below the necessary 500. Despite the doom and gloom, the townspeople hold their election and a majority is achieved on the first ballot – Barry Plumb is elected in a landslide write-in vote. Bedem has a new mayor, a population of 500, and a political mind to solve what may be their greatest problem - Bedem may actually be the property of the Iroquois Nation. Things are definitely in a state of bedlam.

No Meaner Place: There is so much within the pages of this pilot which begins with one of the all time great teasers with Mrs. Lackey putting into words what everyone hoped to hear from Mrs. Spitzer or Mrs. Sanford. As a set up for the demise of a promising political career, Barry’s not Lackey’s, it is peerless. Within the first few pages, the reader/viewer has a relatively complete grasp of Barry’s character and the flaws that will undo him in Bedem. Further, Robinson has played on the preconceptions of the audience by portraying the average citizens of Bedem as being anything but average, with a fuller understanding of American history and politics than most professional politicians. Barry will be an amazing foil for the interesting, deceptive townsfolk of Bedem. Each new insight, such as the of Bedem’s Colonial period significance comes as a jolt:

Anna: The Preservation Society sent the documents I asked for. The good news is, most of our buildings will qualify as historical.

Barry: Is there bad news?

Anna: Remember the odd shape of the town?

Barry: A squid, with tentacles.

Anna: Those tentacles were short cuts – each leading to one of our historic buildings. Stately homes, really, where the proprietors would welcome tired, hungry, lonely soldiers and give them refuge from the night.

Barry: Sounds wonderful.

Anna: I thought you’d like it. Because our historical homes, Barry, were eighteenth century bordellos.

Barry slumps into a chair

Barry: The town founders were prostitutes. (calls to the desk) Did you know that, Eunice?

Eunice: Of course, dear. It’s how the town got its name.

Barry: Bedem.

Laughter, irony, sophisticated politics in Dog Patch East – who could ask for more?

Life Lessons for Writers:  “Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.” – Molière. Why can’t it be for all of the above?

Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: I loved your script. Obviously that must have come through.

Carla: I can’t tell you what a great shot in the arm you have given me. It was such a nice response and unsolicited. It was one of those great mornings when I got your email. You seemed to totally get it.

Neely: That makes me feel great! I’m so in love with that script.  And, by the way, congratulations on getting a WGA Access Award for it.  That’s how I discovered it. Melody Fox, a fellow Access winner, also had recommended it.

Carla: Melody, who’s a very good friend, was one of the very first people to read this script.

Neely: I have to tell you, you wrote the best teaser I’ve ever read (most of which I quoted at the beginning).

Carla: You really nailed it in your analysis. The whole Spitzer thing is what gave me the inspiration for it. We’ve all been seeing this, time and time again, where the woman is standing there stoically, sometimes giving the little smile... right up to Sanford hiking on the Appalachian Trail with Miss Argentina. I have been waiting for one of these women to just let them have it. And then I thought, instead of it being about her husband, let me make it about his right-hand man.

Neely: The guy who’s covering up for him.

Carla: Exactly. That was a fun thing to do.

Neely: The material seems so out of the box for the kind of writing you’ve done in the past – science fiction on “Battlestar Galactica.” What was your inspiration for Bedem?

Carla: I wanted to write something funny, and obviously with “Battlestar,” as great as it was, my comedic skills were going to be limited, and with good reason, because human holocaust and the story of a murderous race of robots is not going to be a yuk-fest. So when it was time to write my own script, with “Bedlam”, I could just let the banter fly. I love writing banter. As far as inspiration, I don’t know how much detail you want but I’m just going to tell you a behind the scenes story.

Neely: Well the next question was going to be - did you base any of these characters on real-life counterparts or history?

Carla: It’s really an amalgam of moments that stem back from this summer job I once had – one of the many jobs I did to pay for college.

I had agreed to drive a moving van for a rock band from Cincinnati, Ohio to upstate New York. I had never been to New York City or Philadelphia, and I’d always wanted to see those cities. There was going to be a stop through Philly and it seemed like a great idea. Originally I was just supposed move equipment and some instruments for the band, but on the day I was to leave, I learned that the drummer and the bass player were going along for the ride. Immediately I’m a bit skittish about taking musicians over state lines. But I’d already been paid, so I told the guys they’d have to behave, which they did. That’s probably the good side of transporting musicians – they tend to pass out wherever you leave ‘em, and not wake up til you set them on fire. Anyway I was going about 85, which I thought was a pretty good way to get through Western Pennsylvania until I got pulled over. The State Trooper was peering into our van – which must have looked a little bit hinky to him, and he removed me from the van and put me in his cruiser while he ran the plates. Now this is not my van and oh god, I’m hoping that everything is on the level here. I’m sitting there with my fingers crossed making the most inane small talk about Amish country and Quaker country when he got the word that we were okay and he let me go with a warning. He wanted to know where we were headed, just the typical cop questions, but he was so nice. He gave me a list of sites that we should check out on the way, including a diner. He also said for us to say that Trooper Andy sent us. I told him I didn’t think I could say “Trooper Andy” with a straight face but we actually went to some of the places he recommended and people did recognize the name. One guy even said that Andy still owed him for tickets to a Penguins game. It’s entirely possible that Andy was simply using me as a ruse to test the waters.

We continued on. I don’t know if you know the Eastern cities at all – but what’s really wonderful about these places is that you have these big cities that have sections with a small town flavor. Betsy Ross’s house is still In Philly, there among some huge buildings. We did a little tour of the house and there was all this talk about Betsy Ross and how she had these 3 husbands buried down the road. All three of her husband’s graves were there and all I could think about was that Betsy was lucky that she was good with a needle and thread. Thank heavens she was a national treasure, because three dead husbands might have attracted the wrong kind of attention in some other era. Eventually we left Philly and continued our drive to upstate New York.  I was surprised by how small the towns were up there. At one point I was completely lost and remember calling someone for directions and the guy said “you can’t find the street?” And I said, “No, I can’t find the town.” Everyone I encountered not only embraced their small town status but was refreshingly proud of its history. I completely understand. I have always had an interest in the years in this country between the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. Think about 18th century America at the time it became a country. It had to forge and combat alliances with the British, with the French, with the hundreds of Indian tribes. It had to be confusing for the people at the time. You know, like “who are we with now?” What a fascinating time.

Neely: Were there any real life counterparts?

Carla: Everyone is fictional. The town and people I created were archetypes of what we expected. Barry Plumb was a guy who was where he wanted to be, not realizing that he wasn’t doing anything he should be doing before the rug got swept out beneath him.  He has to mature somehow and he also has to come to the realization that he was complicit in his own demise just by continuing to serve a boss who was caught up in vice and corruption. Barry knew what was going on; he just didn’t want to face it. This sort of activity kept him busy and kept him from doing the kinds of things he should have been doing. He has his sometime girlfriend Anna (I love Anna); she’s going to be the one who calls him out when he needs it. And he has Supervisor Patrick, a kind of off-stage puppeteer who directs Barry into this new gig without allowing him a choice in the matter. They’re both people who really have Barry’s best interest at heart, who know he’s not a courageous guy but that he has a keen ability to think on his feet. They want him to make better decisions.

Neely: In terms of the town of Bedem, did you do any specific research into the history?

Carla: Absolutely. Bedem is fictional, but there are examples of towns losing their town status. The term “unorganized territory” is the correct term to describe these areas. It does occur more often in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, but most often in Maine. There are towns in Maine with a population in the single digits. It’s hard to imagine, but they exist. As I did some of the research I did discover that town status is lost most often due to surveying errors and population reduction. So I thought how about if I create a town where size really does matter; that the idea of one person moving out or dying could alter municipal structure. There were lots of boundary disputes during the time just before and after the Revolution and it wasn’t just Indians involved. There was actually a group called the Vermont Sufferers relating to a time when Vermont and New Hampshire were both authorizing land grants for the exact same pieces of land. People were getting bounced out because the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. The Vermont Sufferers were a group that got bounced from their land and were sent to Bainbridge, New York. It actually happened. The surveying errors were real. And boundaries were sometimes made up that no actually agreed to. It’s interesting how towns get made and how a town can be dissolved.

Later on in the script I do go into the Indians and whether or not this town was Indian land, but I don’t think we have the time here to go into the number of discrepancies revolving around treaties that various states made with Indian tribes; but again, this is a real life situation that is going on. I read, not too long ago, that the Seneca Tribe was suing New York Sate over a 108 mile patch of land. The Iroquois Nations have filed land claims against both New York State and the United States. Again, because of the time period when these treaties were constructed, an argument in one particular case was made stating that a deal favorable to the Indians had been made by the State before the end of the Revolutionary War, but the State didn’t have jurisdiction because the land still technically belonged to the King; therefore the sale was voided because the state officials had no claim to sell it to the Indians. So it still goes on.

Neely: Has this script gone out?

Carla: It has not. It’s brand new. I have to say, though, that I’m thrilled to be one of the Writers Guild Program winners. I hope it will lead to others reading it. I know it’s a fun script and it’s an easy read. Obviously I want to get people to read it. I think there may be some issue with me being thought of as a drama writer, but I think you can write one hour dramedies. There’s room for drama in “Bedlam.”

Neely: I have to say that I would hate to see the comedic tone darkened. Look, there is now such a thing as a one hour comedy, and I really do see “Bedlam” as that. Where do you see “Bedlam, New York” fitting? Is it cable? Is it network?

Carla: I could see this as a USA cable show, but I could also see it as network. It’s definitely in the vein of the one hour dramedy. I’ve had people compare it to “Gilmore Girls,” “Northern Exposure,” and even to some half hours like “Newhart.” I am delighted by these comparisons because I think these are all great shows.

Neely: I actually saw it more as a half hour single camera with a one hour pilot. Have you ever considered that scenario?

Carla: I must have channeled your thoughts because I ended up looking at it thinking it would work as a half hour also, so I wrote a half hour single camera pilot based on the same material. Obviously it’s half as long, so there’s a lot that isn’t in there anymore. It pretty much opens the same, a little briefer in the teaser. I have it as a teaser and three acts in single camera format. It kind of ends with him being elected mayor. It might work better as a half hour; I don’t know. Not too many people have read the half hour.

Neely: The one thing that worries me about the pilot as a half hour is that what you’ve done so beautifully in this script is create the world of these characters. I think that world needs that much description.

Carla: Well the half hour is definitely shorter. I’ve left out a number of things – like the Indians. The basic story is the same. I think it works well as a half hour. It was a good thing for me to do as an exercise. If anyone wants to read a half hour, I have it.

Neely: I think you might be missing my point about the richness of the world you created in the one hour, but I’d be happy to read the half hour also.  I know you also have a feature entered in competition at the Sundance Institute. What does that involve? How do you get into that contest? Tell us something about that.

Carla: I’m really excited about the Sundance application. I think it’s the general consensus that Sundance only invites writers if they have talent or a director already attached to their project, but I’m here to tell you that it’s not always the case. They ask you to submit a very brief sample of your script – only five pages; it’s very short. May 1 is usually the deadline. They give you very precise guidelines of what they want – five pages of the script, a two page double spaced synopsis, a resume, and a letter of introduction in which the writer must state who has seen the script and who, in the industry, is involved with it at the time. A lot of people get upset at the process because it seems as if you’re always losing to well known industry figures. A couple of years ago you might have lost to someone like John Leguizimo. I was very clear on my application letter that no one in the industry is currently attached to my project and that I am just the writer. And I got in! I had entered a number of years in the past and had never gotten this invitation. At this point, the invitation is to submit the entire script. I don’t know how many people, over all, get invited to submit full scripts because this is my first time. All I can say is that someone on the Sundance committee must have responded to something in the material I sent.

Neely: Can you tell me what the feature is about?

Carla: It’s called “A Simple Bridge” and it’s another fish-out-of-water story; I don’t always write fish-out-of-water stories (laughs) but in this case it’s about a man who wants to move his family back to his hometown where he feels he can get a better footing in life. He’s inherited property from his recently deceased grandfather and to him, it’s an opportunity to start over. It’s set in Eastern Kentucky, and once they arrive they learn that his hometown is actually in the middle of an archaic, fifty year feud with a neighboring town that, it turns out, had been started by his grandfather. He came to this town to make a name for himself only to learn that his name in this region is already well known, and despised. He makes a few friends and gets some guidance from the town sheriff, who’s one of the favorite characters I’ve ever written. He devises a plan to reunite the two feuding towns by rebuilding a bridge that used to connect the two towns. It becomes a metaphor as the physical bridge becomes a metaphysical bridge which reconnects his family to the past – to a time and a place. There’s also a twist he never sees coming. I’m very happy about this script and am thrilled someone else is going to read it. I don’t know if anything will come of it, but people will respond to the name Sundance; it’s got to mean something.

Neely: It definitely does. What about other projects?

Carla: I have a couple of other TV pilot scripts, one hour each, that I’m polishing. One is a very gritty drama, definitely cable fare. It could be for a network as well but the way it’s written I really want to keep the language. And I have a Sci-Fi cop show that’s funny and has wonderful characters, including an openly gay male cop, another of my all time favorite characters. I think that sometimes people think that stale sells because everyone is familiar with it, but I love to write new characters that I don’t see every day.

Neely: How did you get started writing?

Carla: Probably, like a lot of people, I was doing it for a while but with no real purpose. I wrote skits and little plays at a very young age. Sometimes in school we’d even have occasion to act them out, if only at recess. I think some of them actually still hold up; but as a kid, I never thought I’d be making my living as a writer. As a teenager I wrote a piece on the Cincinnati Reds that was published in a major newspaper and I wrote a couple of satirical pieces that were published in a national anthology. That may not have been a big deal, but it was my name in print and I was 17; I was really proud.

Neely: Where did you go college?

Carla: I went out of state to Indiana University on a scholarship, initially majoring in microbiology.  I got a scholarship from a group that serviced underprivileged kids in Cincinnati and it was a big honor to get it because so few students were even given an application. For part of the scholarship I had to write a very very long paper (to this day I can’t believe that anyone ever read it) highlighting microbiology and how it was still technically a new field. I remember that I made an argument that microbiology had actually been around for a long time because there are references to it in ancient Rome. Some Romans began to realize that even though the soldiers in Carthage had big swords and elephants, they needed to worry about those tiny little things that get in through their feet and made them very sick. Those were very early references to microbes. But here I was in school, working two jobs on the side, going to school full time in a major that had five hour laboratories. It just became impossible for me to function this way; there just weren’t enough hours in the day to continue this schedule. At the time I didn’t even have a television, but at one of my night jobs, there was a small set and I got hooked on Thursday night “Must See TV.” I’d go home after a very very long day and started writing scenes (just for myself) of “Seinfeld.” I just kind of wrote jokes on the side and then I just kept writing and ended up writing a full script – my first spec script.

Twice a year I had to meet with the people who awarded the scholarship and bring my grades; they were very formal about it because they wanted to know where the money was going.  I remember the woman brought me in and just looked at me and said, “My god, when was the last time you slept?” I’d been popping No Doze like salted nuts and she picked up on it. It was in that meeting that I told her that school was going great, that I had very good grades; but I had no time for anything. At that point I told her about the couple of things that I had gotten published because I knew she was a big Reds fan. As soon as you tell someone from Cincinnati that you’ve written something about the Reds, they’re all on your side; and that’s when I told her that I’d like to change my major to anything else that would allow me to stay in school. I told her that I had written a spec “Seinfeld” and was stunned when she asked to read it. Later I got a terrible call from her telling me that she had read my “Seinfeld” script and that she had hated it; she quickly added that she hated the show. But her son read the script and he loved it and that was good enough for her. She assured me that I would keep the scholarship as long as I remained in school full time. I stayed in school and got a degree in communications and English, degrees I thought I could make work for me. It still seems strange to me that I’m a writer because my entire background had been in science; I was going to be a microbiologist.

While I was still in college I wrote two plays, but didn’t show them to anyone. Once again serendipity struck at one of my side jobs when I was working as an assistant teacher at a wonderful little school. When the director of the school found out I wanted to be a writer, he asked if I ever wrote plays. He was connected to a couple of guys who ran a very small experimental theater and they were looking for material. They ended up producing both my plays, but I have to admit that both plays bombed horribly. At about the same time, and I don’t remember the exact day when it happened, I realized I had to graduate and get out of school and should move to Los Angeles. I knew I wanted to write for TV and I also knew that I had to get myself out there. I also had to buy a TV set, because at this point I still didn’t have a damn TV set. I worked for about a year before moving out here, doing whatever jobs I could do. It’s always hard to find jobs if you don’t have good connections, and I came from a challenging background with no contacts whatsoever. But I worked and I saved up and bought this little 4 speed Honda; I wasn’t even sure it would make it out here. I didn’t know a single person in Los Angeles and I remember shipping my books separately because it occurred to me that if I had to push my car for a stretch the books might make it too heavy. So I loaded up my duffel bags and drove out West. I’m not sure I even had a map; I just kept going West until I saw the Pacific Ocean for the very first time in my life.

Neely: “Battlestar Galactica” is an interesting and excellent credit. How did you land that job?

Carla: I had written a spec “Law and Order.” It got me into the Warner Brothers drama program and it also won first prize in the Carl Sautter Scriptwriters’ Network contest. Ron Moore was a “prize read” in the contest; he agreed to read the first place winner, and that was me. But Ron hated “Law and Order;” he just hated it. He’s very much a character person and “Law and Order” is a strict procedural – all plot no character. So I was very happy to say to him, “Well maybe you’d like to read my “Practice” script.” And he said, “I love “The Practice.” So he read “The Practice” script and said “Come in, I want to meet you and I want you to pitch for “Roswell.” This was a great example of what I always say, “Don’t live on your one spec.” At about this time a couple of other things happened for me. I won a Prism Award fellowship and an American Film Institute TV writing program fellowship. I had also sent some of my other specs out to “Family Law” and got a freelance assignment from them. At the same time, I pitched Ron a story that he accepted for “Roswell.” Then 9/11 hit. The whole country was under siege so you feel 2 inches tall if you complain about your script not going through. Episodes were getting pulled, including my own, on both “Family Law” and “Roswell” and then both shows were eventually cancelled. I have experienced more than my fair share of “almost there” moments where everything was going fine and then at the very last minute a show decided not to hire a staff writer, or a show got cancelled or it didn’t make it to air or people were leaving the business altogether to walk the Earth like a Hindu mystic. And it’s tough. But Ron remembered me from that “Roswell” pitch and I stayed in touch with him – not to the point where I was a pest but I continually had new work to show him. I contacted when he was on “Carnivale” which I thought would be perfect for me, and he asked me to send him my latest stuff. He would never have done that had I not given him good scripts to begin with. So it was just another confirmation that you’ve got to keep writing. I sent my “West Wing” and my “Six Feet Under,”  and those are the shows that got me “Battlestar.” Not a space ship between them.

Neely: Since your last steady writing gig ended several years ago, how do you support yourself?

Carla: I do, as you know now, some production work and the occasional office work. I’ll do almost anything legal. I learned at a very young age to take care of myself and to do what you have to do to survive. It means maintaining the rent; it means paying the electric bills so the computer will work; it means providing for basic personal needs such as sunblock and bourbon (laughs). I live simply, somewhat frugally. It’s difficult but I signed on to do this; nobody forced me to live this life. This is definitely something I want to do and it is something, perhaps, that I have to do. I’m very good at budgeting myself from the standpoint of money and time. For instance in the latest production job that I have now, I try to time it in ways so that I set up the preproduction and then don’t have to do the whole film. At this point, I’m surviving, I’m okay; otherwise look for me on an off ramp near you.

Neely: Who has helped you along the way?

Carla: Obviously I have to say Ron Moore has been great to me. He remembered me over a period of 3 ½ years and he agreed to read my work. He will always mean the world to me. I also had a great opportunity to meet with Glen Mazzara after he read some of my work. He invited me to pitch for “The Shield.” It was a job I didn’t get but he was extremely encouraging to me. He’s an asset to this Guild Access program. I have the pleasure of sharing the Writer Access Program with Melody Fox. She’s been a terrific friend to me; she understands the business inside and out; and she’s willing to give me tips on how to fight the discouragement that she knows I feel. There’s no reason I shouldn’t feel this way when things aren’t going the way they should go. Also, anyone who reads me and gives me notes, even if they’re just verbal notes, offers help to me. There are a lot of situations where I don’t necessarily incorporate the notes, but it always helps to see what kind of hiccups there are in particular scenes or lines. When more than one person makes a similar comment, I immediately know it’s time to address it and to make changes; and in some cases, completely delete a scene. If something’s not working and all the fixes are just making it worse, I give it the finger – I hit the delete button and hold it there.

Neely: What do you read? Any writers from whom you’ve taken particular inspiration?

Carla: I used to read a lot more than I do now but I do find myself, once again, going back to some of my favorites. Anything by Kurt Vonnegut works for me. All through my childhood I read his books and they still transport me; they calm me in a way that nothing else can. I also read D.H. Lawrence and Dickens and a good deal of Science Fiction; I’ve always read it a lot more than I watched it. I like some of the really well known writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick and some of the more obscure ones like Olaf Stapleton. I also read and still read a lot of plays, both classic and more modern fare – Edward Albee, Shakespeare, and recently “The Vertical Hour” by David Hare. So, yeah, reading does help me. It calms me.

Neely: What do you watch in your spare time?

Carla: Being a life long baseball fan, I watch baseball on every channel. And of course I catch up with the primetime shows, anything I missed during the season. I know that sometimes people complain about TV; I’ve pretty much been the opposite. I’m always surprised by how good a lot of TV is. I would almost much prefer to stay home and watch a TV show than to go out to a movie.

Neely: Well what are your favorites?

Carla: Of the current crop or the past?

Neely: Current.

Carla: I was a big fan of “Lost.” I definitely miss “Lost.” Currently I like “Castle,” “Psych” and “White Collar” on USA, I like “The Good Wife.” I’m so leaving things out.

Neely: What about “Glee” and “Modern Family”? Any comedies?

Carla: “Glee” and Jane Lynch. Yes! I love Jane Lynch. She is one of those people that I would love to write something for. “Glee” is a great one for me.

Neely: If you could get anyone to read “Bedlam, New York,” who would it be?

Carla: This is such a good question. I’m not sure I have a succinct answer. First of all it would have to be someone who enjoys good banter. I hope I can call it good without coming off as pompous.

Neely: No, it’s really good banter.

Carla: The names that pop out at me are Aaron Sorkin, Amy Sherman-Palladino; they both did shows with marvelous banter. How about the ghosts of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart? If I have to go to the afterlife for it, I’m ready.

Neely: Before when I asked you what shows you watched and you indicated that there were some past shows that you really liked. What are some of your very favorite shows from the past?

Carla:. One of my favorite shows of the past is “Picket Fences.” That’s definitely a one hour that had so much in it. “Picket Fences” to me, it was almost as if the United States Constitution was a character in there with the way the town would get together and everybody had a place and everybody had their own way of doing things. Sometimes your favorite characters would definitely be on the wrong side of an issue. I really liked the way that they handled a lot of that. Definitely lots of comedies. I would say “Frasier,” “Seinfeld,” “Newhart,” “Sports Night,” In one hours it was “West Wing” of course because of all that smart banter. I’ve written some cop stuff myself, so I liked “The Wire,” “Six Feet Under,” that was a big one for me; but when I think about the time when I first wanted to write TV it was probably shows like “Picket Fences” and “Northern Exposure” that made me want to write one hour. They had imperfect characters and they had humor; they were infused with the satire of American contemporary life. I’m sure I’m leaving a bunch of them out but I’ve always liked shows with flawed characters who were faced with ambiguous agendas and where even the clergy were fair game. I know I’m leaving a lot out but those are the ones that popped into my head.

Neely: Clearly you were a big fan of David Kelley because you had a “Boston Legal” spec, and a “Practice” spec and you loved “Picket Fences.”

Carla: That’s hilarious because I didn’t even think about that until just now.

Neely: My ears perked up when you talked about your “Boston Legal” spec at the beginning; then you mentioned your spec for “The Practice,” and you clinched it with “Picket Fences.” I couldn’t agree with you more on your assessment of “Picket;” it was practically perfect and Constitutionally diabolical.

All I can say is that I truly loved your script. I was probably overly generous in the amount I published as a flavor to the story, but if I’d had my “druthers” I would have published more because the dialogue and characters were so sharp, funny and incisive. I would love to see it on television and hope it opens lots of doors for you. Thanks for spending the time.

Also, check out my recent article on Studio System: http://www.baselineintel.com/research-wrap?detail/C8/fall_network_myopia_take_a_second_look_at_these_great_scripts_and_tv_pilots

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"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it's just possible you haven't grasped the situation." - Jean Kerr


What: When a non-licensed private eye, or self-employed researcher as she prefers to be called, and two of her subjects all land in jail, the police have their hands full untangling the who, why and whither of what happened.

Who: An avalanche of misunderstanding careens downhill all because Louise Child decides that she must take extreme measures to get the tuition to send her daughter to St. Vivian’s; something she deemed a necessity as soon as her 14 year old daughter Lumen started dating Hector, the “homie” who took Lumen to visit his cousin at the County Jail for their first date. Louise’s big idea was to follow a cheating husband, obtain the proof of his infidelity, and offer it to him on a platter (or in this case, on plate imprinted with the photograph of his tryst, as the photo shop was running a special) in exchange for $3,678 – the tuition at St. Vivian’s – at his place of business, a law firm.  Only this cheating husband didn’t bite.


Husband: Who are you?

Louise: Friend or enemy. It’s up to you.

Husband: What do you want?

Louise: Four grand would include the negatives. Not just the plate.

Husband: Forget it.

Louise: Ok, $3678, but that’s my bottom line.

Husband: I’m not paying a cent.

Louise: How do you think your wife would like that?

Husband: Ask her.

Louise: That’s what I’m threatening to do. Is this going too fast for you?

Husband: Don’t you get it? It would be a relief?

Louise has hit a wall.

Husband: I don’t love her. I don’t know if I ever did. At this point… I just want to be free.

Outside the Husband’s office, a few office workers look up at the sound of muffled shouting.

Husband (OS): Tell her, you sicko!

Louise (OS): Tell her yourself!

Bam. The door flies open. Louise stands in the doorway, looking back into the office.

Louise: Where do you get off calling me names?!

Louise turns now, sees that people are watching. She steams through the reception area where.. an immaculately groomed woman watches with the others, dressed for shopping, not the law. It’s HEIDI, observing with keen interest as Louise stops by the receptionist’s desk on the way out.

Louise: (to receptionist) Do you validate parking, or is the whole operation cheap?

Heidi, the observer, is the wife and therein lies the source of the pebble that causes a tsunami of an avalanche. Heidi begins to trail Louise, intent on finding out what had just transpired, inadvertently stumbling upon the incriminating plate lying on the front seat of Louise’s car. As related to the police detective taking Louise’s statement…

Louise feels bad, but not bad enough to blame herself.

J.D.: Did you tell her what her husband said?

Louise: Of course not. I wasn’t out to destroy anyone, all I wanted to do was pick up a little tuition money. She was never even supposed to see the plate. And she wouldn’t have except she’s so damn helpful. I mean… she’s Heidi.

J.D.: I know.

Louise: No, I mean she’s Heidi. The little Austrian girl. With the braids. In the book.

J.D.: Never read it.

Louise: She thinks everything will be ok as long as she’s nice. If her grandfather’s a monster, or the old lady down the street is crippled, she just pumps out a little more Heidi love vibe and voila, everything’s fine. She lives in this… fairy tale, refusing to acknowledge anything is actually bad, convinced everything depends on her constant giving. So she ends up this slave, endlessly worried about everyone else, but afraid to ask what I want…

Heidi, the innocent in all of this, had continued to trail Louise, kicking loose some more rocks and accelerating the avalanche. Daintily breaking into Louise’s residence, a double wide near the beach, she cheerily informs Louise’s heretofore clueless daughter that she’ll soon be attending (Heidi’s alma mater) St. Vivian’s, causing Lumen to go ballistic, call her mother to tell her that she’s decided to run away to Tijuana with Hector and get married, an idea that does not sit well with Hector, allowing Heidi to find out Louise’s location and report it to the police in a 911 call in which she states that Louise is armed and dangerous. Arriving at the site where Louise was working on a paid surveillance job just as the police arrived to take a vigorously protesting Louise to jail for resisting arrest, Heidi, somewhat remorseful for her own actions, decides, unasked, to continue the surveillance for Louise, discovering the true intentions of Louise’s subject, presumed to be a philanderer, and inserting herself into his “job” at which point both Heidi and the subject are arrested on a much more serious charge than resisting arrest. And it is at jail that Heidi and Louise reconnect.

 

No Meaner Place: Oil and water never mix until an emulsifier is added, and apparently jail can act as that emulsifier.  Johannessen has written a wonderful buddy Pilot framed in dislocated flashback so that the viewer is constantly kept guessing as to chronology.  The story telling timeline is so incredibly original it disorients the viewer/reader, enhancing the screwball nature of the action allowing the viewer to watch Louise and Heidi develop and grow over the course of the interrogation.  I so thoroughly enjoyed the way in which Johannessen told the story and allowed me to watch the balloon swell until it exploded.  Using the framework of (the detective) J.D.’s interview of Louise to gradually reveal snippets of the story in a seemingly haphazard order that do not yield the whole picture until the very end when the characters find their common ground. We knew from the beginning, or at least from the first moment we met “oil” and “water” that a partnership would be borne of the cynic and the eternal optimist, but the journey getting there was like a drive through the Huntington Gardens when everything, including the corpse flower, was in bloom.

Life Lessons for Writers:  Can’t women be buddies? Apparently not, as far as television is concerned.

Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: I can’t tell you how excited I am to be talking to you. You are one of my favorite writers and were such an elusive “get.”

Chip: I was so pleased you liked the script because I like it a lot too.

Neely: You have such a broad range of work in television, starting with “Beverly Hills 90210”  and most recently with “Dexter,”

Chip: I’m running “Dexter” right now. I’ve taken it over from Clyde Phillips who ran the first four seasons. The episodes I’ve been working on haven’t aired yet. The opportunity to do “Dexter” coincided with the end of “24” so I came over here. Manny Coto came with me from “24”; he’s fantastic.

Neely: Is Melissa Rosenberg still on “Dexter”?

Chip: No, she’s gone. I tried to get her to stay around but she’s busy, obviously.

Neely: I know. I don’t know how she managed it before, what with the “Twilight” movies and all. What about Wendy West?

Chip: She’s still here.

Neely: I’m a big fan of Wendy’s also and will feature one of her scripts in the upcoming weeks. “Dexter” is just a fabulous show and one that I watch it faithfully, although I prefer to let them build up on my TiVo so I can watch them all at once; I have a tough time waiting a week for a resolution. I think most of us associate you with darker shows such as “Millennium,” “Surface,” and “Moonlight.” Certainly “Dexter” fits into that category, as did “24.” Didn’t you also work on “The X-Files”?

Chip: I had a deal at Fox, but I mainly worked on the show called “Millennium,” which was the second Chris Carter original series to air. It came after the third season of his big hit “The X Files.” I only did one episode of “The X Files” so I didn’t really work on the show. But we all worked in the same physical space because it was all 1013, Chris Carter’s banner. I first saw “The X Files” when I was working on 90210 and I really didn’t like it all that much.  It seemed to be lacking in emotion. But my feelings changed. I now think of the pilot of “The X Files” as a gold standard for everything because it was so clear what Chris was trying to do. The entire series was set out in that first 47 minutes. Oddly enough I pitched “Private Eyes” as “The X Files” of the heart. You had a skeptic and a believer.

Neely: You also did a stint on “24.” I guess my point is that you are not known for comedy, although I did note one episode of “Married with Children” on your filmography..

Chip: That was first episode I had produced after I did “Rugrats.” You know, if you want to have people actually like what you do, that’s a great show for it. There's nothing like having a five year old go “Oh I loved your episode of “Rugrats.” Although I had written for the Harvard Lampoon in college, I have a hard time with that kind of comedy.

Neely: That’s news to me because “Private Eyes” is hilarious. Even though you’re seeing it as “The X Files” of the heart, this is very comedically based.

Chip: I don’t disagree. It’s a total comedy. I just meant that the conception for the series was that it was all about the possibility and the impossibility of romantic attachments. To have someone who was a skeptic and someone who was a believer and put them into this mixing bowl; that was going to be the substrate for these investigators. These were going to be personal stories that they would unearth.

Neely: When did you write “Private Eyes” and where did it come from within you?

Chip: It came from a couple of places. First, there’s Virginia, to whom I’ve been married a long time. She and I have spent a lot of time talking and writing together, although I think the only thing we were credited on together was an episode of “Millennium.” But she’s the person whose judgment I trust and who I show stuff to. Then it came out of a combination of being very interested in using “The X Files” as a pilot idea; I wanted to apply that conceptual clarity . Virginia and I talked about this a lot.

Neely: Were these characters modeled on anyone or anything, or were they created out of whole cloth?

Chip: They began as abstractions in the same way that Mulder and Scully probably began as abstractions – one a skeptic and one a believer. And then they kind of filled in. Heidi, for example, became “Heidi” after a conversation with my daughter’s Godmother, Jennifer Brancato. Jennifer said, “She sounds like Heidi.” And she talked about her as the character in the book Heidi which I used in the script. She talked about how my Heidi was this bill of goods that is sold to all women when they're still little girls. You have to love more; you have to be more positive; you have to be this self sacrificing object that tries to improve the universe at your own expense. That was the lesson of Heidi the book character and that’s when my character became Heidi. Louise, I think had more sources.

Neely: I remember that you were very surprised that I had read the script and wanted to know the circumstances.  At the time, in 2007, I was trying to keep current on showrunners for David Kelley and did some research on whom I hadn’t read and you were one of the writers at the top of that list. I called your agent, Elliot Webb, and asked to read something original by you and had to pry this out of his hands.

Chip: Elliot was very protective.

Neely: I adore Elliot. I couldn’t believe he gave me such a hard time given Now he’s a producer, but I miss him as an agent.

Chip: I love Elliot. I used to go to his office just to listen to him do deals. Now my agent is Ted Chervin, one of Elliot’s former partners before they sold the agency and joined ICM.

Neely: I adored your concept, the characters, the writing, everything about it, but mainly I was blown away by the structure, the way you used disjointed chronology to tell the story.  What was your inspiration for the framework, something that so enhanced the comedy and made the journey as much fun as the characters? I had never seen it before and this year is the first year I’ve ever seen it on screen. It’s used in “Good Guys” on FBC and I can’t help thinking that the writers must have, at one point, seen how you used it in “Private Eyes.”

Chip: I should take a look at that show. I initially pitched this to Nina Tassler, who’s always been very nice to me. She liked the idea of opening up the CBS shop to more female-oriented shows that she thought could be interesting. She said let’s do this, but she also said that the one thing she wanted was for the police detective character to be introduced earlier than the way I had pitched it. That became my problem, but it was the thing that ended up making the story so good because it was what made me do the framework. I usually hate framing devices or storytelling gimmicks but I really had no choice other than to do it this way if I was going to bring my guy up earlier. My normal feeling was that this kind of structure would take all the drama away, but this was a comedy so it actually helped it enormously. Nina is the rare person who gives you a note that makes your life difficult but actually helps in amazing ways. So it really grew out of that request, well actually it was more than a request, it was the one requirement she had. So the storytelling grew out of that. And it turned out to be a lot of fun, especially in the way we establish Louise as an unreliable narrator in that series of slightly different versions of her story. It all happens pretty fast. It was all a blast.

Neely: It’s such a great buddy show, but I tried racking my brain for examples of female buddy shows and the only two I could come up with were “Thelma and Louise” and “Cagney and Lacey.”  I suppose “Sex and the City” is one because at the end of the day it is about female bonding.  Can you think of any other examples?

Chip: Oddly enough I was talking to Wendy West about this and she mentioned “Thelma and Louise,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “Cagney and Lacey,” “Sex and the City,” “Kate and Allie,” and “Absolutely Fabulous.”

Neely: There you go. So at this stage of the game, do you think that female buddy shows are too far “out of the box” and if so, why would that be?

Chip: I had never thought about that as a reason “Private Eyes” didn’t go. It seemed pretty clear to me that it was the PI franchise that made them nervous. I think the fact that it was two women made them just that more nervous. And the subset of cases that I really wanted to tell would be about human relationships. This was clearly not going to be a murder mystery every week.

Neely: I really hate to be one of those women, but this is the second really excellent female buddy pilot  I’ve written about that didn’t get picked up. Somehow “They” don’t seem to be afraid to try any one of a number of lame male buddy series – and it continues in that vein with the pickups of “Franklin and Bash,” “The Defenders,” Hawaii 5-0” (yes, it’s a buddy show), and “The Good Guys.”  I guess it’s just female buddy shows. One has a much greater chance of a pick up if a woman is teamed with a man, as in “Castle.” Could there be an estrogen (rather than “glass”) ceiling? There certainly is no limit to the amount of testosterone on the tube. You’ll never know if a female buddy series will succeed if you don’t try.

Chip: In defense of “Hawaii 5-0,” anything with Alex O’Loughlin is worth trying. I worked with him on “Moonlight” and he’s pretty great.

Neely: I guess CBS is hoping this will fall into the category of “the third time is a charm.” I must say, though, and I did say it in an article I wrote for Baseline Studio System, I liked the pilot script of “Hawaii 5-0” and I’m actually looking forward to seeing that pilot. It’s a very expensive, but really good action piece. On paper it works and if CBS doesn’t spare the expense it will work on screen. My impression of Alex O’Loughlin is that he’s a heart throb and may be too soft to play Steve McGarrett. It might have been better (and they would never have considered this for any one of a number of reasons) to cast Scott Caan as Steve and Alex as Danny. I could very well be wrong.

Chip: Yeah, they wouldn’t do that. But honestly, I love Alex O’Loughlin. He might be a little soft, but I have to say that in “Moonlight” he had this impossible task and he really delivered amazingly well. He had to show a lot of colors when he transformed into this aggressive vampire. He was great. He’s a real actor, that guy.

Neely: He is very watchable but CBS has to find the right show and “Three Rivers” certainly wasn’t it. Alex did not sell well as a organ transplant surgeon.  But getting back on track, one thing that I have to say to network execs is that you’re never going to know whether female buddy shows will work if you’re not going to try. Keep in mind that the female buddy shows we mentioned earlier are 10 to 30 years old and still have resonance.

Chip: What was the other female buddy pilot that didn’t get picked up? I think it would be interesting to read that.

Neely: It was called “Soccer Moms” and was by Donald Todd.

Chip: But really, in terms of “Private Eyes,” at the time that I wrote it I think the whole idea of a private eye show helped do it in. There weren’t these comedic cable PI shows like “Monk” with quirky characters. Executives were a bit squeamish about the franchise. They thought “man this could be either really good or really embarrassing.” And I think that’s why they pulled away. CBS was going toward more hard boiled cop franchises. When I first wrote this, it was about the same time that the “CSI” shows were getting picked up. The networks had an idea of the kind of cop investigative shows that they wanted to do. The typical Les Moonves-type story is the strong guy and the women around him; going out and doing all these great team stuff. “Private Eyes” wasn’t that.

Neely: That does fit into the “girl thing” or rather “anti-girl thing” I was talking about.  Interesting also that a few years ago I was talking to Elisa Roth who was at NBC at the time (and was in on the meetings for “Private Eyes” and loved this script)  and I asked her what they were looking for in a pitch. She said they were uninterested in any kind of PI shows, especially those that referenced “The Rockford Files.”  Ironic, isn’t it, that one of the pilots that NBC produced this year was a remake of “The Rockford Files.” I guess they’re back in the PI business. Lucky for everyone associated with “The Rockford Files” remake that it didn’t get picked up to series. No one would have survived the collateral damage on that one as the original stars are icons and the original writing staff included David Chase.

Chip: As I was thinking some more about this, I remember that I would try to get some casting attached at various times; then over the years I gave up. I also gave up TV for a while in about 2004 or 2005. I was just fed up with the whole thing so I went to law school.

Neely: You’ve got to be kidding.  Ironically, most of the lawyers I’ve met left the law because they wanted to be writers; and you left writing because you wanted to be a lawyer???

Chip: I thought I wasn’t going to do TV anymore at all. But then it crept back in. I’d do a couple of semesters and then I do a TV gig, then another semester and then followed by some more TV. So I kind of kept in it and ultimately went back into it.

Neely: Did you finish law school?

Chip: Yes, I did. I graduated from UCLA.

Neely: Did you pass the bar?

Chip: I haven’t done that yet because I need two months to study and I haven’t had it. During my last semester of school I was also working on “24.”

Neely: This is the most amazing career arc I have ever heard!

Chip: Yeah, I was a little crazy. My wife Virginia was very supportive. When we were young, people didn’t think about careers so much. It’s all different now.

Neely: Who got “Private Eyes” – literally and figuratively? Did it get made?

Chip: My deal at the time was with Universal, so I worked with David Kissinger and Dan Pasternak to try to sell it to Nina Tassler. But it didn’t get made; then it languished for a couple of years until Kevin Reilly at NBC revived it; but again, it didn’t get made.

Neely: How close did it come?

Chip: I don’t know. I can’t imagine it wasn’t their best or at least one of their three best scripts that year. But I don’t think it came close. And when it was revived at NBC that was Elliot’s doing because I was always grousing to him that it didn’t go to air. This was one of those weird scripts that came out really well, and they don’t all come out like this despite what your intentions might be. So it was a few years later and I may even have been in law school at the time, when Elliot got Kevin Reilly to revive it, but I don’t think it was that serious at that point either. Actually, I do think it was what you were talking about, the female buddy thing; that and the softness of the PI genre. I don’t think it was a real contender.

Neely: If Kevin Reilly liked it or understood it, maybe the third time would be the charm there, now that he’s at FBC. You know he took another script that he liked at NBC by Ajay Saghal and had it reworked into something called “Nevermind Nirvana.” Now “Nevermind” (always my penchant for the stupid play on words) that it didn’t get picked up to series, but the timing may have been wrong because FBC was in that enviable position of having very few open slots. And unlike the other networks, I think they’ve made few if any mistakes in their pickups. I’m just thinking that if Kevin Reilly had been a fan, then maybe the time has come for “Private Eyes.”

Chip: Maybe.

Neely: Talk to Ted about it. It really depends on how Kevin Reilly felt about it at the time. This is so fresh and the framing device is so wonderful.

Chip: I have to say that if I’m going to develop again for a studio or network, I think they’ll want something more like “24” from me. I’m not saying that I can come up with something as good as “24”, I’m just saying that that’s the kind of thing they’d want from me, not something like “Private Eyes.”

Neely: You mean testosterone instead of estrogen.

Chip: Yeah.

Neely: That’s what they’re interested in from everyone, including the women. But let’s return to my obsession with the chronology setup in “Private Eyes,” the storytelling framework is very theatrical. Have you ever written for the theater?

Chip: Not really. I started writing after my rock band broke up in New York. I decided I wanted to be an actor, although I wasn’t really very good; I even got my SAG card at some point. I went to a lot of acting classes and that’s where I learned to write because I’d never done anything like that  before. I started writing things for myself and my scene partners. I did scene writing but never a full blown play.

Neely: I think there is a way to tell this story, or a story like it, on stage.  The staging itself is one of the characters and much of the writing lends itself to farce, especially the subject matter. It brings to mind “Noises Off” by Michael Frayn and one of his films, a farce entitled “Clockwise.” I do think “Private Eyes” could be rethought in a different medium. Maybe film, but certainly in terms of the kind of thing you can do with stage lights as a device to indicate time and location, you might be able to think of this as a play. I love it and hate the idea that it’s going to disappear into the ether.

Chip: That’s very kind. One of the things I liked most about this was that the framing device allowed me to keep it very lively and language-driven when I wanted but it didn’t interfere with the surprisingly touching moments. I think it kept the situations sharp and not too schmaltzy. The framing device allowed me to quickly get to the different emotional spaces.

Neely: Even though, or rather because the chronology was framed in a different way, you get a deepening of the character development of both Louise and Heidi that continually grows. By the end of the pilot you thoroughly know who these people are. And as we both know, that is so much easier said than done. It is, of course, the object of every pilot or first episode that the viewer know who the characters are going to be, but it’s rare to be developed as fully as was done in this piece.

Chip: Even in terms of a show like “24” we spent almost all our time thinking of the emotional life of Jack Bauer, believe it or not. That was all you cared about and until you had a good answer to that you didn’t go anywhere. We might sit in a room for 3 or 4 months trying to come up with an emotional thru-line for him and then we could start going.  That’s what it’s all about. I always hear how “actiony” “24” was, but I don’t care about that at all.

Neely: And now you’re working on “Dexter,” the ultimate character piece. Are you working on anything else.

Chip: No, I’m running the show and that’s pretty full time; actually, more than full time even though we only have 12 episodes. But come November I’ll have some time off. I was talking to Howard Gordon and mentioning how “Dexter” was only twelve episodes and he reminded me that I had come straight off of “24” so it’s really 36.

Neely: You’ve been in the business for quite some time now and have had what I’d consider to be a dream career, and I hadn’t known about law school.

Chip: It took me longer than 3 years to finish because I kept going in and out. I was always full time when I was there but I had to go in and out. But when it came time for people to graduate the year I should have graduated I started getting calls from classmates saying “I’m thinking I really don’t want to be a lawyer; I think I want to write TV.”

Neely: Why did you want to go to law school?

Chip: I nearly went when I was young, actually. I was accepted to go to Harvard Law School, but I was playing in this rock band, so I deferred for a couple of years, or however long they let me do it; but eventually I lost my slot. I had always thought about doing capital punishment work, so I got to do some of that at UCLA Law School. I was working at a public defender’s office in Los Angeles my last year and thinking of doing pro bono criminal cases.

Neely: Do you know about “Death Penalty Focus”? I think it’s an organization that you would find very fulfilling. Ed Redlich and Sarah Timberman are very involved with this group.

Chip: I know Sarah and I know of Ed.

Neely: Have you had mentors along the way?

Chip: Chris Carter for sure because I’d never been in a shop that was so story-driven. There was also a guy named Jim Wong who’s now working on a new series called “The Event” with Evan Katz from “24.” Jim’s ability to break stories was just astonishing. Chris Carter’s show was incredibly story-driven and the level of attention to detail was incredible. The amount of producer time that was spent on cuts was amazing and transformed the way TV looked. I feel very lucky to have been part of that. At “24,” Howard Gordon came out of that shop; Alex Gansa came out of the same place; a bunch of us did. It was really a level of quality and neurotic attentiveness to story, production and editing that made a big impression on me and, I think, on some other people there too.

Neely: Have there been any actors along the way that you’ve especially enjoyed writing for?

Chip: People who are leads on successful series, and I’ve fortunate to be on several, tend to be people who can make a lot of things, even the improbable, depending on the genre, work. So Lance Hendriksen was definitely someone like that. Again, I like Alex O’Loughlin; and Michael C. Hall blows me away with what he’s able to do. We’re only four days into production, but I was in Miami watching him work and it was amazing. I was on “Dark Angel” briefly and Jessica Alba was fantastic. I think all these people who are thought of as having a lot going for them – they really do.

Neely: What made you want to be a writer and what brought you out here in the first place?

Chip: My rock band blew up.

Neely: What was the name of your rock band?

Chip: It was called “The Same.” So I had to figure out what I was going to do, which didn’t necessarily mean being a TV writer. But Virginia (we weren’t married then) was in San Francisco and I was in New York City and so we compromised on LA, never having been here. I just somehow ended up writing TV.

Neely: What did you play in the band and do you still play?

Chip: I was a guitarist; but not very much any more. Our keyboard player, who was my college roommate, does all the music for the Coen Brothers – his name is Carter Burwell.

Neely: Oh yeah, I know that name. He was your keyboardist?!

Chip: Yeah. It was our band.

Neely: I have to say, you’ve both gone off in very different and very successful ways. How did you get involved in TV.

Chip: Kind of what I was saying about the acting stuff. That’s how I learned to do it. Then I saw that a lot of the people I knew from the “Harvard Lampoon” were writing half hour comedy and actually getting paid for it, which made me think that is might be possible for me. It is hard to get going in it, but I was fortunate to meet Elliot Webb and a woman named Cathy Carr, who was at Wolf Films at the time. I didn’t do anything at Wolf Films but Cathy made me feel as though there was hope. Eventually, well actually pretty quickly, things worked out.

Neely: Any advice for young writers trying to make there way through the morass?

Chip: I’m on a WGA board now and it’s changed my perception of things a bit, in a good way. I grew up in Detroit and a few years ago I would always say “it's like Detroit in 1973” or “it’s like Detroit now.” I felt television was a dying industry filled with a bunch of dinosaurs because broadcast TV has had some major problems. But now I actually think it’s a great thing to do and TV is very vibrant. When I started it was very clear what you did to get into broadcast TV – how you got an agent and wrote some spec scripts. It’s a much wilder thing now but that’s good. Earlier everyone had a fairly similar way in which they got their first staff job or their first script sale, or whatever it was. Now there are just a million more ways to do that. I think it’s fantastic. That’s not exactly advice so I guess my point is that my advice three years ago would have been “why would you possibly want to be in this dying industry?” But I think I was so wrong; I think it’s a really good place to be.

Neely: So what’s next for you? Any pilots on the horizon? How about features?

Chip: I do have one pilot idea that I’m trying to do with a friend named John Brancato who writes features. A few years back, I was lucky enough to produce something for ABC in Rome where I got to live for a year (around 2004), even though it ended up being rather difficult because we went way over budget. That’s when I thought that if I can’t have fun writing TV in Rome, I should do something else and that’s when I went to law school. But I’m really eager to get back to working overseas again so I have something I want to do with John. We haven’t written it yet but we know what we want to do and that we’d be able to produce it overseas.

Neely: Any features?

Chip: No… I wish.

Neely: What was the name of the project you did in Rome?

Chip: “Empire,” by a guy named Tom Wheeler who just got a pilot picked up to series at NBC called “The Cape.”

Neely: I know. I’ve been chasing him for months, since the beginning because the first article I wrote for the blog was his spectacular script entitled “Captain Cook’s Extraordinary Atlas.” I’ve always felt that it should have been done as a book series – it would have been the next Harry Potter.

Chip: Tom’s an incredible writer. He loves that fantasy/adventure genre and he’s so amazing at it. When we did “Empire,” sitting with Tom and his brother Bill, who’s a feature writer, and a woman named Sarah Cooper, it was the most fun I’ve ever had writing.

Neely: I can’t thank you enough. I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this script for years, so thanks so much for taking the time.

Chip: Howard Gordon and I did a pilot called “Ultraviolet” a while back. . Our main female character was named Neely, which I thought of as short for Danielle. Is that true for you?

Neely: No, but we’ll go into that another day (or maybe not). Thanks, Chip. I’m looking forward to this season of “Dexter.”

{jcomments on}

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“A work of art is above all an adventure of the mind.” – Eugene Ionesco


A continued conversation with the Writer
:

Neely: I mentioned at the beginning of Part I that we were having our conversation in your Silver Lake studio where you design and make custom furniture. This was a complete surprise to me.

Chris: (chuckling) It is for everyone. I’m a carpenter. I had worked for scenery shops for many years, but after a while I looked around and thought I could do a lot better if I had my own shop. I was getting enough commission work, so I decided to take a shot.

This one guy found me and wanted me to do work at his new house; at the same time, another woman wanted me to build some stuff for her company. So I got a deposit from both of those jobs and said, “Sure. I’ll build it.” I had nowhere to work, so I took the deposit for both of those jobs and came here, put first and last month’s down, bought a table saw, bought all the lumber and… I was broke. I said to myself that Id build these two jobs and then at the end of the month, I’d go to my landlord and say “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.” I was all prepared to say, “Awfully sorry. I tried it and it didn’t work.” And that was 11 years ago and I’m still here.

Neely: What do you build? On commission; standing orders?

Chris: I built everything you see except for the couch, the chair and this desk (pointing: book shelves, counters and work spaces). I do architectural woodwork, which is built-in bookcases, bookshelves, that kind of thing; I build furniture. I have a recurring client who has fantastic taste and lots of money and she wants custom furniture all the time for her new house. I just finished building a deck. I build whatever needs to be built. Largely, though, I try to focus on doing woodwork and carpentry; mostly bookcases and tables and things like that. I’d show you stuff, but I build it and it goes away; it’s one of a kind stuff so I don’t have a lot of it sitting around anymore.

Neely: Do you keep a book of pictures?

Chris: I do, but the best thing to do is to see my stuff online. I think I’m a pretty good carpenter. (Kelleydesign.blogspot.com.)

Neely: How did you choose Silver Lake?

Chris: I’ve lived in the neighborhood for over ten years.

Neely: Besides being a carpenter, you’re also an actor. I’ve profiled a number of writers who started as actors – Margaret Nagle, Bird York, Michael A. Ross, Kasi Lemmons, Jay Lacopo, and Dana Gould – each with his or her own story on why they became writers. So what’s your story?

Chris: (shrugging) You know, I don’t think of myself as an actor anymore. I don’t know if anyone else thinks of me as an actor anymore either. I was when I was younger; it’s why I came out here. I think I was a pretty good stage actor. I had a lot of presence as a young man; I was tall, I had a voice (note: Chris has a very deep, melodious voice), I had presence and I just kind of knew what to do on the stage. I did pretty well at it and then I moved out here (laughs).

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“Dead men tell no tales, Mary” – Daphne Du Maurier (Jamaica Inn)

What: Ben Howland has returned home to Harrow Island, remotely located somewhere in New England. Always curious about the island’s ability to sustain itself without the benefits of a decent harbor or any visible source of commerce or trade, Ben discovers the dark secret of survival on Harrow Island.

Who: It is a cold November day in 1887 when Ben Howland returns home after being expelled from Yale. His father, Ashley, Harrow’s lawyer, is none too pleased and demands that he return to the mainland as there is no means of support on the island. The stakes on Harrow island appear to be small but fiercely fought. Hiram Prague, once the owner of the only hotel in town is near bankruptcy after a suspicious fire gutted his place of business; all that remains is his mortuary business and the land. Things are closing in fast because his enemy, Omar Grayfield, is in the process of getting the loans called in. The blood feud between the Grayfields and the Pragues is longstanding.

Ben’s immediate issue is to aid his good friend, the recently widowed Rachel Chase, who has been left guardianship of the island lighthouse. She has been unable to light the wick for the beacon. Unless she can make the light functional, the state will evict her from both her home and her only source of income.

Ben: Didn’t William show you how to fire the wick?

Rachel: He did, but something’s wrong. Maybe salt water in the oil…

Ben leans into the light…

Rachel: How long are you here for, Ben?

Ben: My father wants me gone before the freeze. He’s convinced that I’ll go mad or take to drink, if I stay. I swear he thinks this island is cursed.

He sees that she’s staring down at the beach, distressed.

Ben: Sorry, Rachel. I shouldn’t say that…

Rachel: I found William down among those rocks. It’s been two weeks and Omar Grayfield informs me that if the light stays dark, the state will evict me.

Ben: That’s not going to happen.

She smiles at him as he goes back to work.

EXT. Grayfield Home – Night.

Close on Omar and his three sons out in the meadow watching the stormy sea. Louis is bruised, Henry has a black eye. The house stands behind them, its lighted windows the only thing visible for miles.

Out to sea, coming straight for them through the dark, can be seen the lights of a moderate-sized steamship.

Omar Grayfield: Douse the lights.

Henry and Louis share a look and head to the house.

EXT. Lighthouse Tower – Night.

Ben is still working. It’s dark now and Rachel holds a lantern.

She’s staring off into the darkness again.

Rachel: Ben!

Ben: (straightening up) What is it?

Rachel: Ben, Look! There’s a ship off Grayfield’s point.

Ben: What?

Rachel: Those lights, they can’t see the beach. Ben, I think they’re going to ground!

POV from the light tower; the lights of the steamship blaze up the coast as it barrels toward the rocky beach.

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Based on the play “Abundance” by Beth Henley

“Go West young man, and grow up with the country.” - Horace Greely


What: Bess Stanford has lived a privileged life in the Boston of the late 1860s, but something is missing (as it was from the lives of most women of that era) – independence, free thought, self respect, freedom and adventure – and marrying the wealthy Mr. Farrington will not fill those gaps.

Who: Bess, her head filled with Emerson and Byron, her vision filled with pictures of mountains and Indians, her heart filled with dime store Western romance novels, and her hand grasping the personal ad of William Conklin Curtis of Burnt Forks, Wyoming Territory seeking a wife willing to “live a hard but prosperous life” and who must “have little fear of locust, inclement weather or the red man,” escapes out the window of her cloistered environment to the train station and a soon-to-be westward bound train leading her to a life with unlimited prospects and much hope. On this same train is another young woman, Emma, of considerably less means and circumstance who is also bound for Wyoming, having been convinced by her mother that a mail order marriage is her last hope and prospect given her advanced age, 25, and her beauty that can best be described as “handsome.” Emma, the “helpless” woman-type that Bess detests, gravitates toward Bess, wanting to share the romantic letters written by her prospective husband; Bess prefers the company of her photography books. They are not the only “mail-order” brides on the train.

 

Bride One: …You think they’re gonna want to have intimate relations right away?

Bride Two: I hope so. I’m not going all the way to Omaha to keep my virtue. I was doing that just fine in Cincinnati.

Bride Three: All I care about is that he’s got teeth. If he doesn’t have any teeth I’ll perish right then and there.

The girls wince at the thought of a toothless husband.

Bride Two: What about you, miss?

Bess: Me? I’d like to shoot a buffalo.

Bride Two: …Shoot a buffalo?

Bess: Yes, and photograph the Indians.

Laughter.

Bride One (mockingly) What are you going to do if one captures you?

Bess: Maybe I’ll marry him.

That quiets them.

Bride Three: Aren’t you concerned about your fiancé?

Bess: Yes, yes I am… My hope is that he’ll treat me as his equal, not as a maid or mother hen.

The girls are dumbfounded by her response. Bess leans closer.

Bess: Don’t you see? In fifty years people won’t only be writing about who we married or how many children we had, but what we thought and what we accomplished. (licks her rolling paper) This is the last frontier, ladies, and we are the chosen few. (holds out her cigarette) Cigarette anyone?

This, in short, is the proverbial modern woman and Emma has met neither its male nor female counterpart before. It is perplexing and somewhat frightening to her. Nevertheless, on the long voyage to the Wyoming Territory, they bond; a bond that becomes forged stronger upon the arrival at their destination where Bess discovers that her prospective mate, Will, is crushingly ordinary and Emma discovers that not only has her fiancé died, but that Jack, his feckless brother, has deceptively taken his place and is a womanizing scoundrel of limited opportunities.

Each woman endeavors to do her best, but Bess craves the spontaneity and sensuality present in Emma’s marriage and Emma craves the stability of Bess’s relationship. Tragedy strikes when, shortly after giving birth to Lizbeth, a beautiful baby girl, Emma is abducted by Indians.  Leaving Lizbeth in the care of Will and Bess, Jack begins a search for Emma throughout the Indian territory, sadly coming to the conclusion that she has been killed when her precious locket, a gift from Bess, is found in the rubble of an Indian village burned to the ground by the U.S. cavalry. Eventually returning, Bess leaves Will to help raise Lizbeth, discovering in Jack the adventurous soul she had always been seeking. Life blossoms for Bess as she discovers photography, and with Jack as her willing Sherpa they climb mountains for the perfect shot. Bess has finally gained all that she was seeking – love, independence, equality, and art. Except… the day arrives that all is upended when the Army informs them that Emma is not dead but has been rescued “against her will” from her Indian husband. Emaciated, tattooed, and almost unrecognizable she is brought home and nurtured by a conflicted Bess and Jack. Ridiculed by the townsfolk, alienated from her own daughter, and coming to a growing awareness of the true relationship between Bess and Jack, Emma rides back to her Indian family, pursued by Bess. Eventually finding Emma, Bess is unsuccessful in convincing her to return to Lizbeth, discovering that Emma has another child by her Indian husband.

Tragic circumstance intervenes in the form of the murderous U.S. Cavalry, determined to eradicate Emma’s tribe. In the process they kill Jack, shooting him when he tries to intervene, and Emma’s Indian husband as he tries to lead his family to their one hope of escape over a cliff into the roiling waters below. He is killed in the attempt at which point Emma, baby Adam in her arms, jumps into the dangerous waters below. Bess, abandoning reason, jumps after her and is able to save the child but loses sight of Emma.  Bess, now with a baby to care for, returns home to discover Lizbeth missing. Alone now, she will lead the nomadic existence of a freelance photographer, often working at traveling carnivals.

INT. Bess’s photography studio – night

A painted canvas backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. Circles are cut for the faces of the two Cowboys “chasing” two Indians on ponies.

The sign above reads: WILD WEST TINTYPES FIFTY CENTS THREE FOR A DOLLAR.

The room falls off into darkness where the box camera rests. Bess is framing a print with Adam, her back to the back-drop.

Bess: …When you get older, I’ll take you to shoot some real Buffalo… If there are any left.

Adam: Promise.

From off screen we hear a young girl’s voice.

Young Girl (O.S): One photograph, pleeease.

Man (O.S.): Your mother will be furious if we’re late.

Young Girl (O.S.): We won’t be. Swear it.

Bess: (without turning around) Welcome to the Wild West. Poke your heads through those holes and I’ll be right with you.

And just like that, fate rears its head, for the young girl is Lizabeth, traveling the circuit with her mother who now supports them lecturing audiences about her trials as an abducted squaw – embellishing, lying, doing whatever the audience desires in order to make her way in the world with her daughter.

 

No Meaner Place: In “Come West with Me,” loosely adapted from a play by Beth Henley entitled “Abundance,” Bolotin has found a center in the story of two women, each with entirely different aspirations, discovering what is necessary to survive on their own, something very different than that described in dime novels and formal education.  The weaker becomes the stronger and the ordinary is thrust into a life extraordinary.  The originally desired independence, equality, freedom and self respect have come at a mighty price. As in most things in life, be careful what you wish for, it may come true – even for those who don’t wish it.

Characters of enormous depth and growth blossom on the pages of this screenplay and it can only be because of timing or misfortune that this beautiful script was not made into a film.  We are all the worse for not being invited into the visual, spiritual and poetic world described within these pages.

Life Lessons for Writers: Quoth Lord Byron: “I have always believed that all things depended upon Fortune, and nothing upon ourselves. Nothing truer was ever said about film development.

 

Conversation with the Writer:

 

Neely: I understand that this has been in development at various companies over the years and has come close to the precipice of production several times. More’s the pity for the public that it hasn’t reached the screen because it is lyrical in both word and vision.

Craig: It had very little development. I wrote it on spec and sold it. I was fortunate because I was always attached as the director and, for the most part, at the same studio for many years. Although the producers changed, the script didn’t change significantly. A lot of it had to do with me being attached as the director. Still, I was very lucky. Probably 95% of what you read was in the original script.

Neely: That’s really unusual.

Craig: It never happened again!

Neely: When we first talked, I sensed a conflict in your feelings for this piece because it was an adaptation, although a very loose one.  How loose an adaptation is it?

Craig: The only reason I was cautious about talking about this was because I believe, whether it be a novelist or a playwright, that the underlying material makes such a large contribution even if you’re using, like in this particular case, only two or three scenes and a half dozen lines of dialogue. Someone else came up with the idea of doing two women from opposite ends of the social spectrum who go out West and end up meeting two men who they don’t know. And they have this emotional and physical journey over many years where they finally end up together, although it ends differently than in the play. As a writer and a director, I think it’s important to give credit to the writer of the source material. I feel the same with original screenplays that are rewritten by someone else. It always drives me crazy to see that the name of the original writer is often left off the screenplay in favor of the person rewriting it. And it’s done all the time by major writers and writer/directors.

Neely: I hear what you’re saying, and not taking anything away from Beth Henley who came up with the original idea, but I always remember what was said by a gentleman that I met at a restaurant once when I made a disparaging remark about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music. I enjoyed it but it was terribly derivative. And he looked up at me and said, “Honey, all music is derivative. Way back in history, there were a couple of original tunes and they’ve already been done (over and over).” So it’s really about how artistically and how well you work with that underlying material that matters; not, necessarily whether you came up with that underlying material.

Craig: I disagree with that, but let’s move on.

Neely: Well we’ll agree to somewhat disagree on that. I strongly believe that adaptation is, in itself, an art form and a very delicate one.

Craig: Well what do you think is harder to write: “Chinatown” from scratch or an adaptation of L.A. Confidential?” I would say “Chinatown” because he had to come up with the world and the characters; and the guy doing “L.A. Confidential” had a 400 page novel to pick and choose from. They’re both, however, great screenplays.

Neely: But I’m not talking about which is more difficult and I’m not comparing the two. What I am saying is that adaptation is an art form in itself. To some extent, the adaptor is hampered because that world was already created; he or she is further hampered because of a preconceived audience expectation when they already know the underlying material.

Craig: I would call it craft and not an art form.

Neely: I just fundamentally disagree with you.

Craig: Have you ever written an original screenplay?

Neely: No.

Craig: Have you ever done an adaptation?

Neely: Nope.

Craig: Okay.

Neely: But I have seen very good examples of both. I’m not saying that one is better than the other. I’m saying…

Craig: One is much more difficult to write. Creating something from a blank page is a lot harder than being “hampered” by a three hundred page novel full of potential scenes, characters and a plot – no matter how flawed.

Neely: Let’s get back to “Come West with Me.” How did you find the play and what inspired you to use this particular piece of material as your underlying thesis.

Craig: I saw the play and I’m a friend of Beth Henley’s. I thought that the kernel of the story was great and was showing us a world I had never seen portrayed accurately: women in the West, without guns a la Annie Oakley, or as prostitutes, saloon keepers, or mere appendages to their rancher husbands. I then started to read journals written by women. What a struggle it was for these women, these pioneers. They were living in sod huts with snakes dropping out of them; it would be 20 below zero, they had five kids, no medicine, no heat of course, no light other than candles; they would be grandmothers in their early forties and they’d often be dead by fifty.

The more I read these journals, the more interesting it became. One set of journals was called “Captivity Narratives” written by women who were captured by Native Americans and who, after returning, made money lecturing in the East about their abductions. This was something else I had never heard of. I wanted to tell the story of what it was honestly like for these women based on Beth’s play, her research and mine. Mail order brides, circa 1870, would answer an ad, get on a train, and be stuck with a total stranger in a sod hut in the middle of nowhere a week later. Amazing when you think about it. It does, I hope, also compare and contrast the idea of an arranged marriage versus romantic love. The latter, by the way, came very late in Western history.

Neely: One of the things I really appreciated was that you put women at the forefront of this. Women had been always been featured in the more realistic or grittier Western films. There was always a woman behind the man, whether it’s “Ole Yeller” or “Shane,” who is living a hardscrabble existence. There are lots of movies from the 30’s and 40’s that go a bit beyond the “good wife” in John Ford films. It’s a slight film but I’ve always liked “Rachel and the Stranger,” where Robert Mitchum comes and upsets the delicate balance between a cold widower and his new “mail order” bride (in the sense that he bought her as an indentured servant) who was expected to do manual labor as well as take care of home, hearth and his children – it may not have been great art, but it was a good story.

Craig: Even in “Shane,” which is a wonderful film, Jean Arthur lives in a beautiful ranch house with her water well right outside her front door. Her clothes were sparkling clean, they weren’t full of moth holes, etc. This isn’t the way it was.

Many of the pioneering women of the West were living in sod huts, where snakes lived as overhead roommates; they froze in the winter, broiled in the summer. The men would often leave for weeks to go hunting. The women suffered from depression. There was one story about a woman who went up on the roof to patch a hole and ended up freezing to death. It was a much harder life than portrayed in most films and novels; definitely worse than living at Fort Apache, or wherever Ford had his women living. But that’s not what Ford was interested in – it certainly wasn’t the woman’s pioneering spirit.

Neely: I agree. For the most part, women played a very subsidiary role in John Ford movies, which was unfortunate (because I really like John Ford movies). But “Come West with Me” is a much deeper, much more interesting, and to a certain extent, a much more realistic view of what a woman’s life was like. I especially liked that your main character, or at least the woman who started out to be your main character, Bess, fell into the classic trap of “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Reading the Horace Greeley-type books and actually believing the press that she was reading. I loved the different approach, the different reasons why both women were heading West; it adds so much depth to the story, especially considering how it all turns out. I, too, felt the pull of the romantic literature that brought Bess, foolishly, out there. You also captured a very visual effect. This is where adaptation, a very good adaptation for film, comes into play; when you’re dealing with novels or plays, you have to see and feel the material visually. I actually felt the visual influence of photographer Edward Curtis. Who were your literary and visual arts influences in writing this piece?

Craig: I shot a lot of photographs and taught photography many years ago, but I wasn’t looking at Curtis’ photographs. There was a book of photographs I found, most of which were anonymous; photos of and by the women I was writing about. Women were doing a lot of photography in the West. The book, I believe, is called Women of the Old West and is a combination of journals and photos - the real photos of the real pioneers in and outside of their sod houses, working their patch of land. So my influence wasn’t Curtis, but many other photographs and paintings from this period. In England, of course, there was Julia Margaret Cameron in the 1860’s and 70’s.

Neely: Other than Bess’ admiration for her as a professional and independent woman, her photography isn’t really applicable as they were primarily portraits of the famous or staged allegorical and historical scenes.

Craig: Yes, that’s true. I stretched the truth a bit with Bess taking photos of Buffalo herds and Native Americans. But then, recently, I found a website that has a history of women photographers of the West with landscape photos in Yosemite and of the plains filled with Buffalo herds taken by women at this time.

Neely: Clearly you have a lot of literary influences just in writing, in general. Who are your favorite writers and why?

Craig: That’s another tough one because by naming some, I leave someone else out. It’s like your favorite song. I have dozens and dozens

Neely: Then just give me some examples of some authors who do influence you.

Craig: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.  One wrote a book 125 years ago and one two years ago. One is a vast portrait of Russian society; the other, a microscopic look at post 9/11 New York. Apples and Orangutans. Don Quixote, which I reread recently. I’m from Chicago so I like Saul Bellow’s Herzog and Seize the DayBlood Meridian is a great Western novel by Cormac McCarthy. There’s Nabokov’s Lolita. Madame Bovary…  James Agee, Paul Bowles, and Faulkner…

Neely: Take Nabokov, for example. What is it that draws you to Nabokov?

Craig: His pyrotechnical prose, wicked wit, the surgically precise portrait of American society circa 1955; and the funniest unreliable narrator of all times!

Neely: What about Tolstoy. You mentioned Anna Karenina.

Craig: The unforgettable characters. The enormous tapestry he weaves of Russia, the microscopic examination of lives and mores, of the Moscow aristocracy, gentlemen farmers and the peasants. The ruminations of the nature of life, faith, death, love. It’s an enormous, rich and complex novel. And of course, it’s one of the great love stories.

Neely: What are you reading right now?

Craig: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and I’m reading a book on the Middle East called The Media Relations Department of Hezbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday by Neil MacFarquhar. He was the New York Times correspondent in Cairo for 5-10 years. It’s one of the best books I’ve read on the Middle East.

Neely: Just as an aside, I highly recommend a book about the 9/11 terrorists called Perfect Soldiers by Terry McDermott.

Craig: I’ve read it; it’s very good. I did an adaptation of a novel called Terrorist by John Updike, so I spent a lot of time reading everything I could about terrorists/terrorism and the 9/11 terrorists. Perfect Soldiers is on my shelf.

Neely: I know that you have taught classes. Since you are both a writer and a director, I’d like to know what the focus of your course was.

Craig: In the three places I’ve taught, including The Sundance Middle East Screenwriting Lab in Jordan, two were on screenwriting and one was mentoring senior thesis short films. The students were graduate school writer/directors. I helped shape their scripts, come up with a visual plan, a visual arc to the story … all the way through the editing. The other classes were screenwriting classes.

Neely: Any so-called critical studies component to the screenwriting classes?

Craig: No. But the way I taught screenwriting was by comparing and contrasting different films. I would show the first 10 minutes of three different films in order to discuss “openings.” That was my way of teaching – I would show films along with xeroxing chapters here and there from various text books (note: with proper fees paid to the authors of said texts of course). I would look at the beginnings of films to try to determine, or rather let them determine, why, for example, some openings were better than others.

Neely: Can you give me an example of three films you would have used to illustrate that point for the openings?

Craig: I don’t want to say because with films I used, all of the directors are still working.

Neely: Maybe I was making an incorrect assumption, but were they good examples or bad examples? Why don’t you give me an example of what you would have considered a good example.

Craig: What I think is a great opening? “Jules and Jim” has a great opening. And I used it in reference to “Up” because the beginning of “Up” is terrific – that montage at the beginning. That wasn’t really a comparison but it was showing what you could do in live action versus animation and that there’s a precedent for pretty much everything in cinema, even though it’s only 120 years old.

The beginning of “Jules and Jim,” which is 40 years old, does the same kind of montage, but with real people very quickly covering a fairly long period of time, showing the relationships and the friendships -  it’s magical. The first 10 minutes of that film are breathtaking – the way Truffaut skips around in time and condenses the story; and by the end you know these characters so well.

Neely: Well it is a perfect movie.

Craig: I don’t know about that.

Neely: It was a perfect adaptation…

Craig: You’re right, it was an adaptation.

Neely: Great direction, great cinematography, outstanding choice of actors and acting; with the added attraction that the film still holds up today, which cannot be said of every movie that makes it onto somebody’s “Best” list.

Craig: Okay.

Neely: We had an incredibly intense discussion about film, sparked by my defense of “Gone with the Wind” as my favorite film (it’s actually tied with Marcel Carné’s “The Children of Paradise”). But, as favorite does not necessarily equal “best” movie ever made, I still reserve my right to my choice, in terms of favorite. What is your list of “bests?”

Craig: No. I have too many. Again it comes back to “what’s your favorite song?” – do you like the Beatles, or Bob Dylan, or Shostakovich? It’s pretty silly… If you want to talk about genres, or periods of time… I don’t have one film. It would be better to say, “What are the 10 best silent films? What are the best 10 screwball comedies pre WWII; post WWII? What are the best… you get the idea.

Neely: Instead of getting of the hook by saying “I can’t choose a best,” give me several that are iconic to you, for whatever reason.

Craig: (pause) Best neo-realist film – “Paisan;” best Japanese Samurai film, “The Seven Samurai;” best Westerns - “The Wild Bunch,” “Unforgiven,” Sergio Leone films. It’s silly in my opinion to have to choose a favorite film, or a favorite song, or a favorite painting.

Neely: That’s fine; just elaborate a little further. We won’t call this your definitive list.

Craig: … Best romantic comedy made in a foreign country in the 50’s – “Smiles of a Summer Night” by Bergman; best comedy of manners pre WWII – Renoir’s “Rules of the Game.” I mean it’s endless. “Force of Evil” by Abraham Polonsky is a favorite in its genre; “Rio Bravo” by Hawks is a Western I left out… You see, by making a list you’re automatically excluding. Best silent films -  “The Man with a Movie Camera” by Vertov; “Greed” by von Stroheim, “The Great Dictator” by Chaplin, “The General” by Keaton, “Gold Rush” by Chaplin, “The Crowd” by Vidor, “Sunrise” by Murnau. The best screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s, “His Girl Friday” (Hawks), “Twentieth Century” (Hawks), “The More the Merrier,” by Stevens, “The Awful Truth” (McCarey), so much by Preston Sturges.

Neely: Sturges only made about 6-8 films as writer/director before he fell apart. So it would be okay to include all of those.

Craig: Brahms wrote only four symphonies, but we still listen to all of them. We still watch most of Sturges. It’s quality, not quantity.

Neely: I’m not sure there have been too many people who have written and directed as well as Preston Sturges.

Craig: …Comedies: There’s also Lubitsch, McCarey, Cukor, Hawks, Wilder….

Neely: In terms of Sturges, it’s very much the same thing as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. It’s not to say that one is better than the other; one clearly learned from the other, just as Sturges learned from Lubitsch.

Craig: I think that analogy applies more to Billy Wilder and not to Preston Sturges. I don’t think Preston Sturges was influenced by Lubitsch at all; he never talked about it. Billy Wilder, however, was influenced. I read somewhere that whenever Wilder was writing or directing a comedy scene, he would say, “How would Lubitsch do it?”

There is a great autobiography by Preston Sturges, one of my favorites because of the title. Do you know what it’s called? It’s called Between Flops. It’s really fun and very self-deprecating. That’s how he saw his career.

Neely: You’re right, I was confusing Sturges with Wilder, another of my all time favorites and someone who was almost without peer – given that English was his third language (after German and French). He captured the nuance of English and American culture perfectly.

Craig: Woody Allen is up there too. He had a great run of films, no matter what you think of the last 10 years, he still made “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.”

Neely: I’m of the ilk that stops after “Annie Hall,” possibly after “Manhattan.”

Craig: You have many more restrictions – or should I say you’re more critical than I am. I think “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is a brilliant film and it was made long after “Manhattan.” “Hannah and her Sisters,” and many more. This exposes the problem of “best films,” once again. I think the most important film, the most important song, and your favorite book is impossible to categorize – I mean is your favorite book Gilgamesh, The Iliad, or Atonement?  You have to narrow it down. And I think film, because it has a short history, seems more amenable to categorization. But look, there’s Iranian cinema and Hungarian cinema and so on. We’re predisposed to films from our own culture, for starters.

Neely: You can only judge what you’ve seen, not what you haven’t seen, or read for that matter.

Craig: Even though I mentioned some books and some of those films, once again, I don’t like the idea of making lists. I think the whole idea of the “100 Best” is dangerous.

Neely: I think it is very clear how you feel about “best” lists. But I also remember a good friend many years ago remarking, “If you don’t have an opinion, you might as well be a carrot.”

Craig: I know I’ve probably just blown off great filmmakers and great writers because I didn’t sit here and try to narrow it down. What Paul Schrader wrote for Film Comment is the seminal article on the subject. He spent a lot of time ruminating about it, and he made a list that’s largely made up of what’s important in the history of cinema as opposed to what he personally likes. “Citizen Kane” is an obvious example but that doesn’t mean you can go watch “Citizen Kane” five times a week.

Neely: Actually I can’t watch “Citizen Kane” anymore.

Craig: My point is that all cinema after “Citizen Kane” was a reaction to it, so you have to reference that film because it changed filmmaking. So that obviously is why it’s on the list. There are so many great films and so many great contemporary filmmakers that I haven’t even mentioned.

Neely: What I found interesting about this article by Paul Schrader in Film Comment magazine (http://paulschrader.org/articles/pdf/2006-FilmComment_Schrader.pdf), is that even though he talks about “canon,” the “canon of film,” and what the criteria are for setting up a “canon,” in the end it’s still not thoroughly defined and it’s still just his opinion on what he considers to be the films that fulfill his “canon.”

Craig: I disagree. But of course, there’s always a subjective element; you can’t escape that. He’s following in the footsteps of Harold Bloom who came up with the canon for literature. I spoke recently to a Princeton literature professor, and she argued there is no canon. Evidently, this is a common point of view now in academia. The idea of a canon is passé.

Neely: The only difficulty that I saw with this particular article, because he is entitled to what he considers the films that fulfill his criteria for his canon, is that he didn’t elaborate enough on what his criteria were other than to say that the bar was very high.

Craig: I don’t think you’re giving him enough credit. Schrader briefly traced the history of aesthetic theory in this article. His point was that there has to be something more than the personal “I liked it,” or “that made me feel good.”

Neely: I definitely agree with that. Basically, what I thought he was saying was that there has to be something you can’t live without and that’s how you reach that bar.

Craig: Why don’t we go on because you’ve put a link to the article and people can read it and decide for themselves. It’s a good article - great food for thought. There is an aesthetic and he is trying to come up with five things. I can’t recall them all, but some of them were:  originality, beauty, symmetry… although you may not agree with his definitions. He also specifically talks about films that are not personal to him but are important to cinema. Everybody knows that films like “8½” and other similar films are sine qua non for most people. Again, you might not enjoy them but it doesn’t mean that they don’t belong. Then again you should also take a look at the lists created by the Cahiers du Cinema, as well as the “100” lists of the British Film Society and Sight and Sound.

Neely: Yes, everybody has a “100” list.

Craig: It comes down to whose list you’re looking at and that’s culturally determined, and so on. The AFI list is the least interesting because it’s only American films.

Neely: With the exception of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Craig: How did they put that on there? Was it made by an American company? It’s an English director.

Neely: It’s an English director (David Lean) with interiors filmed in England with an English cast and a storied English writer (Robert Bolt); but with an American producer.

Craig: Sam Spiegel. That’s another great book to read, by the way, about film producing/making.

Neely: Yes, the great S.P. Eagle.

Craig: Spiegel is a wonderful character. It’s a very funny book by Natalia Fraser-Cavassoni (the title would take up a whole page of text). He was the Harvey Weinstein of his day; bigger than life.

Neely: Nick Murray’s documentary on the making of “The African Queen” goes into the history of Sam Spiegel.

Craig: Is it good?

Neely: Very good; very very good. It’s called “Embracing Chaos” and, unfortunately, in Paramount’s wisdom they chose not to release it and just put it as an “extra” on the finally released DVD of the beautiful restoration of “The African Queen.” It’s a wonderful documentary.

Craig: “Embracing Chaos” is a great title. That’s the best title ever – or at least tied with Preston Sturges’ autobiography.

Neely: We’ve covered so much. One thing I’d like to get to is the attitude toward film as an art form, primarily credited to the founding writers of “Les Cahiers du Cinema,” Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, and Eric Rohmer. These guys were all writer/directors, auteurs in the purest sense of the word. But they should also be “credited” with weakening the writer’s influence in film by declaring Hitchcock, Hawks, Lang and Ford as true auteurs. Although Lang did write the scripts for his German films, like the others, he was a director only, once he emigrated to the U.S. It was a peculiar stance for Truffaut to take in that he and his other “New Wave” counterparts were writer/directors. I view their auteur theory as the disintegration of the power/position of the writer in film.

Craig: I don’t, because I think the writer had even less power in film before the demise of the studio system. Back then, writers would be chained to their desks in the “Writers’ Building” and there would be five guys working on a script at the same time. You used to have gag writers, and writers to come in to only work on the love story, etc. Sure, it still happens today, but it was worse back then, And also, most of the folks who rewrote never received credit – except maybe Ben Hecht; and by the way, all the writers, with a few exceptions, were men.

Regarding the “auteur theory,” I think it’s often misunderstood today. What Truffaut was talking about was either a theme or a visual style that could be attributed to one director over a variety of films. For instance with a Hitchcock film, you know it’s a Hitchcock film in the first five minutes; and not just because of the subject matter. That’s all the Cahiers du Cinema folks meant; it’s common sense. Or think of a Howard Hawks movie – he’d do a Western and then he’d do a gangster movie, whatever; but there’s a certain theme about men and brotherhood, etc. Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris argued about this endlessly. I believe it was Andrew Sarris who actually coined the expression “auteur theory” - the filmmaker as the writer of his movie. There are obvious auteurs today. For instance the Coen Brothers; they write, direct, and even edit their films. Ingmar Bergman wrote his films, and of course, directed them. That’s the purest form, but, as I said, the Cahiers du Cinema version was misinterpreted. Sometimes the producer is the strongest person. Even Selznick put his stamp on a Hitchcock film (“Rebecca”).

I think what is more relevant today is the director’s possessory credit, which as a director and a writer I feel is ridiculous. A director may come on eight weeks before the shoot and he gets “a film by” credit! The possessory credit will never be overturned, but it should be. Film is a collaborative medium, not owned by one person (the director), with the exception of a handful of working filmmakers. But back to your question, as little respect as they get, I think writers are more respected today. When I first came here there were no screenwriting magazines. Now there are several, and they interview writers when a film comes out. This is all relatively recent. And television… I think we’re in a golden age – and writers are the Queens and Kings.

Neely: Switching back a bit, because this relates to the fate of “Come West with Me,” is there hope for the independent film or has the tentpole killed it?

Craig: I think what’s sad, more than the tentpole, is the lack of independent studios; the demise of distribution for independent films – the Miramaxes, the Warner Independents, the New Lines.

There are still people who are willing to invest in movies and independent movies still get made, but it’s harder and harder to get them distributed. That’s what’s scary. I’m not sure if I answered the question, but that to me is the bigger issue. The good news is that you can now make a film – shoot it high def on a camera that costs $3,000 and edit it on your computer. It’s wonderful. But often you can’t find anyone to distribute it. Recently, there have been several films made with substantial actors and actresses with significant budgets, 25-30 million dollars that are sitting on the shelf. Advertising costs are so high that the studios/distributors don’t want to risk it. And now they’re not even going to DVD. They just don’t get released anywhere. Sundance had 2,000 plus films submitted; some of those films were made for several hundred thousand dollars and others for several millions. But of those 2,000 films, 25 dramatic films got picked up for the festival – my numbers are probably slightly off, but they’re in the ballpark – and of those, something like six or eight narrative films get distributed. Eliminate the films that were made for two hundred thousand dollars, and there are still probably 1000 films costing several million dollars that never got distributed – that’s what’s worrisome. I think the tent-pole phenomenon has just made it harder for smaller films to find screens. Somebody said, and I don’t know if it’s accurate, that 5% of the movies are on 95% of the screens. So I guess the answer to your question is, I don’t think it’s ruined it because people will still continue to make great independent films and great studio films, by the way; it’s just that it’s going to be musical chairs to get your film distributed. Every year it seems like there are fewer chairs; and if you get one you can only sit in it for two weeks!

Neely: If you were still teaching, what would you say to your students to try to guide them through the quick sand of getting a passion project off the ground?

Craig: If you’re a writer/director, write something that can be made for very little money. Write something fresh and original that is your voice; and most importantly, a film that you want to see. Not what you think someone else would want to see. “The Squid and the Whale” is a great example. I think Baumbach made that movie for $1.8M or $2M. It was a very smart way of thinking about a first film. (Of course it still took him years to get it off the ground.) You definitely have to think about the budget. If you’re a screenwriter, the adage that you should write a movie you want to see, as opposed to writing what you think someone else wants to see, still holds.  When Tarantino wrote, he wrote the kind of movies, genre movies, he wanted to see. He just wanted to do it differently; but I’m sure that when “Reservoir Dogs” was going around he had a hard time. It’s a heist film but you don’t see the bank robbery. He wrote about the before and the after, but not the robbery itself.

Neely: What about new projects for Craig Bolotin? What are they or what might they be?

Craig: I just finished adapting a novel called Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel and I’m writing a spec script called “Cease Fire;”

Neely: I know you have somewhere you have to be so let me let you go, and thanks so much for your time and passion about movies. I so loved “Come West with Me.”

Please check out my latest blog on Studio System entitled "Wonderful TV Pilots Not Picked-up this Season"  (http://www.baselineintel.com/research-wrap?detail/C8/wonderful_tv_pilots_not_picked_up_this_season)

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“Fathers should be neither seen nor heard. That is the only proper basis for family life.” – Oscar Wilde

What: Dana Nolan, guidance counselor, lives in a houseful of women and the shadow of his larger-than-life father.

Who: Dana has his hands full managing his two young daughters, coordinating his schedule with wife Julie, an anesthesiologist at the local hospital, and working at the local high school as a guidance counselor in the shadow of his father, “Big Phil” Nolan, the school’s legendary and much lauded coach.

Swallingford: Hey, Nolan, your dad’s here again. I thought he retired.

Dana: So did I.

Swallingford: (re: a plaque outside Dana’ office that reads: “Thanks to Coach Nolan – Thirty-Five Winning Years!”) Doesn’t it bother you having that there?

Dana: That? No. This gets annoying.

We see the school trophy case, a glass-encased shrine stuffed with trophies, awards and photos. It occupies the entire wall opposite Dana’s office.

Dana: You in any of those pictures?

Swallingford: No. I tried out every year, but your dad never played me.

Dana: Try growing up with the guy. I’m five-eight. You know why I’m not six-three? According to my dad, I didn’t “want it enough”.

Man’s Voice: (O.S.) Swallingford!

Enter “Big Phil” Nolan, 66, a force of nature, a six-foot fist in a windbreaker. He points to the trophy case.

Phil: What are you looking at? You ain’t in there.

Swallingford fumes. Phil throws an arm around his shoulder.

Phil: I know it bugs you, but, well, that’s it. I know it bugs you. Okay, hit the showers!

Phil slaps him on the back. Swallingford wastes no time leaving. Phil points out a photo.

Phil: Look at that, 1984. The whole team was white ‘cept for two black guys. Now it’s all black ‘cept for two white guys.

Dana: And?

Phil: Line ‘em up and trade ‘em off you’d have a hell of a chess match.

Dana: Dad! You can’t say that.

Phil: I ain’t sayin’ it’s right or wrong, I’m just sayin’ it is. What’s that sitting in your parking space?

Dana: Julie’s new Prius.

Phil: Is that a car? Don’t look like a car, looks like a camera. Your brother drives a car.

Dana: Stan drives a truck.

Phil: A truck. Now that’s a car. Got snow tires for that thing?

Dana: Yes.

Phil: Can you put them on yourself?

Dana: Yes.

Phil: You lying to me?

Dana: No. Yes.

Phil: Geez! Where’s your older brother?

Dana: I dunno. What’s he doing for a living this week?

Phil: Easy. He could have gone pro, your brother. If it wasn’t for his shoulder, that kid would have touched greatness.

Dana: Yeah, seventeen years ago.Later that evening the aforementioned brother, Stan, stops by for a visit. Usually Stan’s visits consist of a rundown of Stan’s latest financial disasters and his pleas to Dana to help him avoid bankruptcy, court, and/or a confrontation with their father. This evening is no different as Stan confesses that his latest get-rich-quick scheme, something involving jewelry and cattle, has left him $60,0000 in debt and unable to pay his 3 home equity loans. Stan is about to lose his house and needs Dana to explain the situation to their father.

 

Later at dinner, Dana tries to explain the dynamic to Julie.

 

Dana: It was a freak show.

Julie: I’m sorry. Why is Stan always having money problems?

Dana: He was supposed to make three million a year for throwing a ball. When he finds another seven figure gig he can do in the yard, he’ll settle down.

Julie: What are you gonna do?

Dana: I have no idea. He just dumps it in my lap, now it’s my problem.

Julie: You’re the responsible one.

And this time the problem may be insurmountable as Stan and his wife and 5 kids will soon have no place to live. In a magnanimous gesture that speaks to the favoritism always shown to Stan, Phil gives them his own house and, at the urging of Julie (not so much Dana), comes to live in the apartment above Dana and Julie’s garage.

No Meaner Place: Like “Funny in Farsi,” this was one of the two or three best half hours written for this season, and, like “Funny in Farsi,” landed at the network that hit the bulls eye last year with “Modern Family” and “The Middle;” both family-friendly comedies.  What became apparent from their pickup choices, ABC decided to go in a different direction rather than lead with strength. As discussed in an earlier article, ABC missed an incredible opportunity to bolster their brand of family entertainment. And how has that been going for them?  Not too well, it would seem. Although I would never purport to know what rationale is, or was, in play, I suspect that the desire for that ever elusive 18-34 rating drives network execs to view comedies about singles (losers or otherwise) to have greater potential to generate those ratings more than comedies about families. Interestingly, it would be my guess that people with families are the ones watching television and the singles in that 18-34 range are out doing other things. What really has me confused, though, is that quality doesn’t ever seem to be part of this equation.

Life Lessons for Writers: In the immortal words of Big Phil: “A family is a team. Like a team, it has a clutch player, the go-to guy you count on every time. As a coach, I’ll tell you, that’s the guy you ride the hardest, but it’s because that’s the guy you need the most.” In television and in life.

Conversation with the writers:

Neely: Dana, I’ve read this several times and each time it makes me laugh out loud.  Was this one of those “based on the standup comedy of Dana Gould” ideas?

Dana: Kind of. I had been on staff at “The Simpsons” for a long time and then when I left because I was kind of done at the time, I went out and did standup again, more out of habit. And I ended up doing a special for Showtime. I wasn’t pursuing a pilot, but Erin Wehrenberg at Warner Brothers called me up and basically said, “I saw your special and that’s a show. Your dad and you and Sue (she knows my wife). And that’s a show.” So I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a great idea. No thanks.” But my agent Larry Salz talked me into doing it. I ended up writing it and it just kept not getting killed… until the one yard line. In a way it was sort of like “based on the life of Dana Gould; standup comedy also based on the life of Dana Gould.”

Neely: So this is a variation on your own family?

Dana: My family lives in Massachusetts. My father is an Archie Bunker without the elegance and sophistication. And my wife is a lot smarter and has a better job than I do.

Neely: (laughs) That fits, because the wife in the show had a better job that you did.

Dana: Exactly.

Neely: What’s your dad do?

Dana: My dad’s retired. He just turned 80. He worked at the phone company. Oddly enough, the least emotionally available person I’ve ever known worked in the communications business. I always found that rather ironic.

Neely: Did you have any siblings?

Dana: I have four older brothers and a sister. I didn’t want to deal with all of that so I telescoped them down into one.

Neely: Are you the runt of the family?

Dana: Yeah.

Neely: So your brothers were very athletic? What about your sister?

Dana: All my brothers are at least a foot taller than I am. My oldest brother is a State prison official. One brother is a prison guard, another is a home inspector, and I have a brother who worked at the phone company with my father… Everyone is in very traditional jobs and live within 5 miles of where we grew up.

Neely: So you really are genetically related to these people.

Dana: (laughs) I know. I call it the Marilyn Munster Syndrome. My one brother, Kevin, came out for the pilot taping. Todd Stashwick played my brother on the pilot… the character of my brother is the only character in the show who isn’t based on anyone real. The issues I have with my real brothers are far too nuanced and shaded to be dealt with in a sitcom (laughs). But there is one thing that resonates in there. My father really idolizes athletes; he was a baseball player. My oldest brother was an All-State baseball player. When we were kids, my father’s favoritism of my oldest brother wasn’t even an issue. It was just one of those “deal with it” things. Our nickname for our oldest brother was “My Son Dick,” because that’s how my dad always referred to him. Every conversation always started with “My Son Dick…” That’s where some of that came from. The guy that did the physical stuff that the father liked – the athlete - was just clearly valued more than this more brainy kid. When Todd Stashwick came in, I didn’t know him. I only knew his work from “The Riches” but it was Deb Barylski and G. Charles Wright who said, “No, no, no. This guy is amazing.” I talked to him for maybe 30 seconds in the waiting room and I thought, “Okay, you get it.” And then when he came in, I said just one word, “Jethro,” and he just put a hole right in the center of it.

Neely: In the produced pilot, you moved some lines from one scene to another. I understand dramatically why you used the line about not being tall because you “didn’t try hard enough” with your brother because it gave the two of you a much needed moment of bonding…

Dana: Those characters don’t hate each other at all.

Neely: I got that. But I have to say, I preferred it in the scene where you were talking to your best friend Swallingford. Swallingford is looking at all the trophies and pictures and remembering how your dad wouldn’t play him. It was so revealing about your father and about your friendship with Swallingford.

Dana: It was a change that came about organically both from the standpoint of moving it away from Swallingford and from the standpoint of moving it to the brother-to-brother dynamic.

Once we went into production, when I got a pickup to actually make this pilot, I knew that I couldn’t do it alone. I couldn’t Exec produce it and run the rewrites, especially with the insanity of a pilot week where…

Neely: Oh yeah. Where everything comes together right then.

Dana; Yeah. You know, three days before you shoot, the studio thinks “Maybe this is about a small group of people who run an airport.” After 6 months of micromanaging and they don’t even blink… My only complaint about the pilot, the craziness of pilot week, really, was that people so readily abandon the courage of their convictions. It’s in every pilot, in every situation, and it boggles my mind.

But, long story longer, when it got picked up as a pilot I got very very very lucky and got Mike Scully, who actually hired me at “The Simpsons.” He was the only other person I could think of who could do this, help me with this, because we come from like 20 minutes away from each other, growing up in very close proximity. I didn’t know him, of course, because there’s an age difference, but he knows exactly who these people are. His father is my father too; he’s the same guy. There’s an unspoken encyclopedia of common references. I share credit with him for all those rewrites. So when we had to cut the Swallingford scene, I said, “Mike, I don’t want to lose that line, so let’s just make sure that it gets in there someplace because it’s really good.” Mike is much better than I am because he really is aware of the value of jokes, of just hard laughs. Whereas I’m more “Don’t worry about it; I’ll be funny.” In the original draft of the script, my father didn’t come in until the second scene. There was a set-up for this guy and then you meet him. When we did the table read, the minute that Brian showed up, the show really popped. So it was Mike who said the obvious, “Let’s put him in the first scene, as quickly as we can.” I would have never thought of that in a million years.

Neely: That’s very good, but what I liked about the Swallingford scene was that it was one of the warmest and funniest set-ups for best friends that I had read. I understand the time constraints on why it was cut, but I would have kept the whole riff on how the trophy case bothered you and how Swallingford wasn’t in any of the pictures; and then the dad comes in and says “What are you looking at? You’re not in any of these pictures.” Rather than the overt “Look at that, it’s a chess match.”

Dana: We didn’t want to meet the father and have him be mean to the only minority character. We found it played rather hmmmmmmmmmmm.

Neely: Well, that’s why you do table reads.

Thanks so much for sending me a DVD of the pilot. I really enjoyed it. What was your experience working with Brian Dennehy?

Dana: He was awesome. He was great. I had been warned that he could be cantankerous, but I wrote that role with him in my head. He seemed so much like my father; and then when I met him, he really is a lot like my dad, just a bit more intellectual. Dennehy is a bear of a man but you know the rules – don’t poke the bear in the eye and you’ll be fine. I had the greatest time with Brian Dennehy. In fact, of the three or four projects that I’m poking around right now, trying to see which ones are going to go, one of them I wrote to work with Brian again.

Neely: My feelings are mixed on Dennehy’s performance because there seemed to be a problem with eye contact, but I thought your performance was fabulous in this.

Dana: It was hard to give a bad performance with Dennehy because he was so present. If you feel there was anything missing, it must have been the cut.

Neely: I have to say that when I read this I thought immediately of Brian Dennehy.

Dana: That is the great thing about Brian; he is as real as a hurricane. I was probably too inside this to pick up on what you seem to have noticed. If anything, I would fault the edit or the camera placement because I really felt that he was dead on.

Neely: I thought that the chemistry you and Traylor Howard had was unbelievable! The timing in the way the two of you played off each other – there was never a breath in between.

Dana: She’s a pro. She’s like the Carole Lombard model that doesn’t exist anymore.

Neely: She definitely has that screwball timing.

Dana: Yes, exactly. That kind of thing doesn’t exist anymore. She comes in knowing what she’s going to do. No drama. She hits her marks. She does it first time dead on and then refines it. With her, there’s no running all over god’s creation to “find it.”

Neely: Well you were adorable in that pilot. I’m sure a grown man cringes when he hears that he was adorable but… you were adorable.

Dana: I have to say, I was very happy with the whole thing.

Neely: This is one that completely confuses me.  This was definitely a case of the good, the bad and the ugly at ABC this year.

Dana: Their decision was that they didn’t pick up any multi-camera shows. They made a big push during development saying that they wanted multi-camera family shows. “The Middle” has been a hit for them, and because of the economic model, they say that multi-cam isn’t dead; that they really want to develop multi-camera. I thought this was a multi-camera show; it wouldn’t have worked as a single camera show.

Neely: I agree. I don’t see how it could be single camera.

Dana: They didn’t pick up any multi-camera shows. I guess they were telling the truth when they said that they wanted to develop them; they just had no intention of picking any up.

Neely: They didn’t give you a second bite on this, did they?

Dana: No… no. You can’t second guess. I don’t know what they were doing. Have you seen “No Ordinary Family?” It’s “The Incredibles.” How do you even pitch that show with a straight face? It’s been done a dozen times. Hmmmmm… I have a show I want to pitch – it’s about a guy who lands on a planet that’s run by apes.

Neely: Really?!  How Fresh! I’m sure I’ve never seen anything like that.

Again, what really perplexed me is that ABC had the opportunity to be the family comedy network because your show, “Funny in Farsi,” and “It Takes a Village” … all three were outstanding. That’s a whole evening right there. All I can say is that this was the tale end of Steve MacPherson’s bipolar blow-up.

Dana: (laughs) I think that article is being written for “The Daily Beast.”

Neely: I did write something about that, not the blow-up, but that Paul Lee should take a look at all the things Steve turned down. ABC picked up more schlock and left more good material on the table than any other network. I had intended on writing one article about all the networks and their choices, but the ABC situation was such a creative disaster that I ended up devoting a whole article just to them. (http://www.baselineintel.com/research-wrap?detail/C8/wonderful_tv_pilots_not_picked_up_this_season)

Dana: I was very proud of the show. You just have to keep going forward or you’ll go crazy.

Neely: It’s not like features, and this something that I hate about TV. A feature, either a script or a completed project, can sit on a shelf for years and then someone can say “Wait a second. Didn’t somebody write this fabulous script a few years ago about fill in the blank. Let’s make that.

Dana: I find it mind boggling…

Neely: …the waste is incredible!

Dana: I agree. But you know there is one example of this happening in TV. Do you know the “Happy Days” story?

Neely: No, I don’t.

Dana: “Happy Days” was a pilot in 1972. It was made as a pilot, rejected, then edited down and used as an installment on “Love American Style.” Ron Howard wrapped that pilot and then went and made “American Graffiti.” “American Graffiti” was a big hit and ABC said, “Didn’t we make a pilot with him like that a couple of years ago?” They went back in and found it and then just picked it up and added Fonzi and made it a show.

Neely: I didn’t know that story and I live and breathe TV, so that’s wonderful. What a shame. Nobody has the balls to do that anymore. Instead we get… “No Ordinary Family.”

Dana: I have to admit I haven’t seen it, but the audacity of its premise was insane.

Neely: I’m all for what’s on the page and if it’s on the page and it doesn’t work it means that someone else screwed up. I didn’t think that “No Ordinary Family” was on the page; I really didn’t care much for what I read but, in all fairness, I recently watched it and it turned out to be one of those (rare) shows in which the execution breathed some life into it. It’s no more original on screen than it was on paper, but the casting brought something out in it that I didn’t think would be there. Anyone who hasn’t been watching TV for, say, the last 6 months, won’t recognize that it’s not original.

Dana: Right. Exactly.  But still, it’s “The Incredibles” or “Greatest American Hero,” or, on and on and… “Heroes.”

Neely: It’s like, “where have we seen this before?” Oh… everywhere. But on the other hand it’s very much in keeping with the lack of originality that the networks showed this year (and ABC did it more than anyone else). Everyone decided this was the year of the Rom/Com. So everyone picked up a (really lame) romantic comedy; and ABC picked up two! I didn’t think any of them were any good. The only one that I thought showed promise was “Love Bites” by Cindy Chupak and I’m not sure how it’s going to work now that she’s stepped back into a more ancillary role.

Dana: I don’t know. I give up.

Neely: No you don’t.

Dana: I have two or three ideas that I’m working on now and going out with them over the next two or three weeks, and they’re all for F/X, USA, even Adult Swim – and in lieu of Adult Swim, the Comedy Channel (the runner up Comedy Network – Comedy Central). I just give up… I can’t figure out what they want.

Neely: You can go broke trying to figure that out. It doesn’t even depend on who’s in charge. Bad decisions have been made almost everywhere. CBS did the best this year; I found most of what they picked up to be plausible, although they left a few good things by the wayside. I think Fox dropped the ball when they didn’t pickup “Breakout Kings.” I thought the script of “Lonestar” was pretty good but I always had my doubts as to whether it would actually work. I certainly didn’t think, as a lot of critics maintained, that it was the Second Coming.

Dana: Instead, it was the First Going.

Neely: (laugh) Even though second bite money is now a significant chunk, isn’t it a lot safer to pay real money for that second bite when so much of the series that are picked up are inevitably going to tank, no matter what they think of the chances?

Dana: I wish I could figure them out.

Neely: I’ve got a “Simpsons” question for you. I know David Mirkin started out in standup, but besides him, how many other standups were writers on “The Simpsons?”

Dana: Not many. Tom Martin, and me, and I think that’s it. Conan became a standup after.

Neely: Mirkin has talked about how “The Simpsons” hates to lose its writers so they give them long vacations that can amount to years.

Dana: (laughs) It’s true.

Neely: Do you think you’ll ever go back to “The Simpsons”?

Dana: I don’t rule anything out, but I have three little kids, so I need to be back home every day.

Neely: How old are your kids?

Dana: 8, 6, and 1.

Neely: Yikes!!

Dana: Exactly. Now you know why I’m so hard to pin down.

Neely: And you’re also doing carpool duty.

Dana: Yep, carpool duty. My wife is out of town for half of the week, and she works long hours anyway, so I’m Mr. Mom half the time, and it’s a lot. But it’s awesome. One of the main reasons I left the show was that I wanted to be around more for the kids, because my wife does have a big job. I figured I could write features and work at home, and go away on the weekends and do standup when Sue’s around. That way someone is always kind of hanging around.

Neely: Your kids are very lucky; and actually, as a matter of fact, so are you.

Dana: I’m incredibly aware of it.

Neely: Enjoy it, because this is before the kids get nasty – you’ve got several years to go.  You’ll probably rejoin “The Simpsons” when at least one of them turns 12.

Dana: They may be young, but they can still be nasty.

Neely: (laughs) You starred in this pilot and were obviously involved in the casting. Did you choose the director?

Dana: They give you a choice, going “we approve of this person and this person, not this person or that person.” I think everything Jim Burrows did got picked up (note: actually, I don’t think “Nathan vs. Nurture” and “Open Books” have gotten pickups). He wasn’t available. I also really liked Andy Ackerman. Andy directed the episode of “Seinfeld” I did, and he’s great. I didn’t really know Craig (Zisk) that well but Warner Brothers really liked him because he had been doing single camera for years and they thought he would deal well with the script because a lot of the jokes were on the page. I really liked him and we became pretty good friends. I thought he did a really good job.

Neely: We already talked about Dennehy and Howard; how about Stashwick?

Dana: Stashwick dealt with it all so effortlessly because he’s an improv guy. I had no idea that his comedy portfolio was so dense until I got to know him.

Neely: What was it like on set?

Dana: In most comedies, when we would do run-throughs, the head writer was on the floor. But this wasn’t like the traditional set up for a multi cam where you do the run through; you work out the scene; you do the run through and the actors are dismissed and the head writers go, “This doesn’t work; this doesn’t work, this doesn’t work. We’re going to go fix it. See you tomorrow.” And they go back, order dinner and work. What would happen to us is that we’d be half way through a scene and I’d go, “Ah, this doesn’t work.” And I’d just kind of fix it there. We then had to develop a new system, because Mike would be up in the offices doing the day’s work and I would be on the floor. Then towards the end we had the writers’ assistant on the floor just emailing my changes up to Mike and he would refine them. Sometimes we’d just do stuff right on the spot. “This doesn’t work; let’s do this instead because this is a funnier joke.” One of the jokes that came out of that was in the scene where I come up with the idea that my brother has to sell his house and move into an apartment. “And then why don’t I say: A magic hobo who throws up money.” And said it as a joke and he really laughed so we just did it on the spot and put it there. We had to take something out to put that in, but it didn’t go through the typical process of 24 hour turnaround. I’d just write it in and tell everyone to write it in, because it was funnier. You had to kind of think on your feet. But to me that made it exciting and more organic. So many sitcom scripts are “precious.”

Neely: No… they’re supposed to be funny. So who did this originally get pitched to and what was the reaction?

Dana: It got pitched to everyone. It got pitched to NBC, who’s not doing multi-camera; pitched to CBS who passed and then called back later to super pass. They passed and then supposedly called back and said “And we’re really passing on this.”

Neely: You’re kidding!

Dana: No, I’m not kidding! I can only guess it was because they already had the William Shatner show going and they wanted to maybe shake everybody’s confidence in pitching this anywhere else. So the word was CBS called to say they weren’t interested and then someone from CBS called Jay Sures, who runs the TV department at UTA, to restate how much they were passing.

Neely: Ah, yes. “**** My Dad Says” was just picked up for the season. It is somewhat similar in that it’s Dad-centric, but it has no heart.

Dana: I don’t blame them for doing what they did. It was such a shame because I thought my show was really well suited for CBS. Turns out it was, they just were doing it with a different actor. I took it to Fox, but it really wasn’t a Fox show.

Neely: And you just said something that intrigues me. NBC didn’t take it because it was multi-cam??? What is it with multi-cam? It’s the most lucrative format – best chance of off-net syndication and one of the cheaper formats to produce with limited sets, limited guest actors, and a schedule to die for (not for the writers, of course, but for everyone else).

Dana: Snobbishness.

Neely: Well so far this season that’s worked really well for them.

Dana: I really do think it’s snobbishness. They’re looking for more theatrical. Also, you have to have a show to pair it with and somebody in television has to have the balls to put on a multi-camera show not produced by Chuck Lorre.

Neely: I guess… there were several good ones available.

Dana: I think it was Andy Warhol who said, “In the future, all shows will be produced by Chuck Lorre.”

Neely: Yes… I remember that quote.

Dana: Now that I’m going out to these other cable networks like F/X and USA and even Showtime and HBO (which are a different animal entirely), I see that they have something distinct. USA is looking for shows that have a very strong specific character – Bang. F/X is into shows with very interesting concepts. They have these riffs that they adhere to.

Neely: Or they think they adhere to.

Dana: It’s up to you to convince them that you’re adhering to them. That’s the trick. I did find that somewhat interesting. NBC, coming into this season, they had nowhere to go but up and…

Neely: …and yet, still they haven’t.

Dana: I admire some of what they’ve tried. “Outsourced” is not a “Friends” rip off; it’s at least an attempt to do something different, so I kind of support that. I don’t watch comedies anyway so…

Neely: I watch everything (at least once). “Outsourced” isn’t horrible. I like Dietrich Bader and hope his show is a success.

Dana: I haven’t seen it, but David Cross said recently, “Americans don’t like to watch people who aren’t Americans.” “Outsourced” will put that to the test. I tend to agree with him so we’ll see what happens.

Neely: I’d have to think really hard about that, but he’s probably right, although what is the definition of “American” because we come in all the colors of the rainbow. So, anyway, what was the notes process like on “Nolan Knows Best”?

Dana: By and large it was not horrible. I’ve certainly been through worse. At the end of the day on the last pilot I did, the network/studio managed to make it about nothing. But on this, Erin, at Warner Brothers, and Sami at ABC, they both knew the show, they knew what it was. Steve’s notes were, at one point, significant, but they didn’t break the show. It bent it, but it didn’t break it. We never had the “We’re throwing it out” experience. We never had to re-break the main story. At one point, we had to sort of re-shift the perspective of my character. There was a note that Traylor’s character shouldn’t have a hard opinion; it should be left up to me. This was an awkward note that resulted in me having an argument with myself at the end of the second act as she stands there. But by and large, I never got a note that really hurt the show.

Neely: So they’re not even going to consider rolling this to next season?

Dana: No. This show is dead as Kelsey’s nuts, as they would say.

Neely: As what?!!!

Dana: It’s an old Irish expression – “cold as Kelsey’s nuts” – Kelsey being a famous dead person. My brother once said “dead as Kelsey’s nuts” and I keep saying that. It’s a malapropism; it doesn’t mean anything. (laughs)

Neely: I like that.  And this is where we’ll break because we have too much more to talk about.

To be continued next week…

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“When I was a boy I used to do what my father wanted. Now I have to do what my boy wants. My problem is: When am I going to do what I want?” – Sam Levinson

Dana and Julie are getting dressed for work.

Julie: Is it a good idea for any of our parents to move in with us? But who has a choice? “Never take sides against the family.”

Dana: Are you quoting The Godfather? Shut that door.

Julie: Don’t you dare, I can’t be late! It makes sense, doesn’t it? You work hard for your kids, why not work hard for your parents?

Dana: I get it with the kids. The weird thing is, the harder we work for them, the more we have to hide it from them, because if they grow up unhappy, then we’ll never get their money.

Julie: Sweetheart, you have to ask you dad what his plans are.

Dana: I can’t talk to him. We tried today, it doesn’t work.

Julie: There’s a way to do it. Be simple and direct. You read “Talk, Look and Listen.”

Dana: What, what and what?

Julie: It’s by the same guy who wrote, “Wake up and Win.”

Dana: Are those real?

Julie: You never read any of the books I leave out for you.

Dana: You never read any of the books I leave out for you.

Julie: They’re all about serial killers!

Julie grabs “Talk, Look and Listen” off of a stack on the beside table, hands it to Dana and leaves.

A Continued Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: Tell me a bit about your background. Obviously standup, but what else?

Dana: I wanted to be a standup from the time I was about 12 or 13 years old. I kind of knew what I wanted to do really young. My mom took me to see George Carlin when I was 16, and it was one of those moments – “Yeah! That’s what I want to do.” Right there. The first time I did it was two weeks out of high school. I went into Boston and did an open mike night; it was in June of 1982. And then I started doing it in college at the University of Massachusetts. That took me out of my home town and got me into Boston where I made a living at it. Then I moved to San Francisco in 1986. So basically I fell right into it at a really early age. I’ve been making my living at it since I was about 20 or 21 years old. I always intended to get into acting and I naturally assumed I would be a giant movie star with my looks. I moved to LA in the late 80’s and fell in with Janeane Garofalo, who was a friend of mine from Boston. We all moved out here at about the same time. There was this little clique of people like Janeane Garofalo and myself and Bob Odenkirk and Ben Stiller and Judd Apatow. We were all sort of, as I’d describe it, running around in suede coats, writing on our hands. I sort of came out of that comedy class. I worked on “The Ben Stiller Show” and I fell into writing because I’d done a bunch of pilots as talent. You know, you get to a point when you’re a hot standup comedian and you get talent deals and then you do a pilot. In the early 90’s I made a great living making pilots that never saw the light of day.

Neely: Writing them or acting in them?

Dana: Just acting in them. Other people were writing them. Jace Richdale did the first one, Linwood Boomer did one, then Matt Endberg did one. It was “Dana’s Town” or “Dana’s Face.” I can’t remember. So over the years I had my hands in more pilots than an Air Force proctologist. And finally around ’95, I just got sick of sitting down with TV writers and explaining who I was. So I just wrote one on my own as a kind of “I can do this.” It was a show called “World on a String” that was basically a cross between “Seinfeld” and “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” It was like a traditional sitcom set in a hyper reality. It was made by Fox Alternative for FBC, and it got picked up and made. But it didn’t get on the air – it got close – and people still comment on it. People still tell me that they thought it was interesting – it wasn’t the typical pilot, it had different elements in it. It would probably make a decent show now if I replaced me with a 14 year old girl, I could put it on Nick Jr. or Disney. But if I were a 14 year old girl, I’d have other things to do – I’d be at the mall.

Neely: Not to worry. Pretty soon you’ll be doing that except that you’ll be having to stand in the background.

Dana: Don’t even! I can’t think that far ahead.

Neely: (laughs) It’s not that far ahead.

Dana: No it’s not. They’re already avoiding my eyes when I walk into school before they’re out. Anyway, as an actor, things started to cool and I said, “You know what? I’ll just do standup and write.” By that time I had met the woman I was going to marry and I had been doing standup for 12 or 13 years. So it was one of those moments where I went, “Yeah, yeah. I’ve got this. I can write and do standup. I don’t need to be a big star. I’m happy to make a living.” And of course because I had made that decision, I got cast in a sitcom pilot. That one was called “Working” starring Fred Savage and I played the “idiot” on the first season of that show. That was a frustrating experience for me because I wasn’t allowed to do what I do. There wasn’t a lot of communication with the writers. I had a hard time putting into words for them what I felt I could do. One week the character was a Mensa genius and the next week he literally didn’t know how a telephone worked. It was hard to play it because it was just a joke (the unfunny kind).

Neely: It must have been extraordinarily frustrating because you could write and they weren’t listening to you.

Dana: Exactly. But the producers and execs also weren’t listening to the people who were hired to write… I wasn’t the only one with that complaint. So after that, I said “Forget this.” And sometime after that I just left acting for a good long stretch.

Neely: What is the life of a stand-up comedian and how does it affect home life?

Dana: You’d have to ask one (laughs).

Neely: Ha! Ha! Ha!

Dana: The dilemma of the standup comedian is that he has no home life which is why I don’t do it as a living anymore because I don’t want to grow old in a condo. I still perform around town. I’m appearing at the Upright Citizen Brigade’s Theater and then the next night downtown at the Mayan Theater; and I’m going to San Francisco for a weekend in a couple of weeks. But I don’t tour. I’ve been doing this for 26 years so I don’t need to delve that deeply into Dana’s life to develop material. I have a good ear for it now.

Neely: Do you still mine your family?

 

 

Dana: Yeah, that and whatever’s current in my life. That’s always been the way I write. As I grow older and develop different interests, my act changes. To me, though, my standup career is more of a hobby. It’s a thing I do that I love to do. This is how I would phrase it, “I’m a standup comedian but I don’t do it competitively.” I’m like a guy who used to surf for a living and now I just surf.

Neely: What was your ultimate goal?

Dana: In standup, I’ve achieved it. I’m a funny guy and people like me. I tell my jokes and people laugh. In life, I’d like to dominate all media.

Neely: Oh excellent. I think we’ve seen a TV show on that. Oh… actually wouldn’t that TV show be “No Ordinary Family”? (laughs)

Dana: It would be “No Extraordinary Pitch.”

Neely: (laughs) I think you may have already answered this but I’ve been laughing so much that I was distracted. When did you get to write some of your own material when you were hired as an actor? Or did you just slip it in?

Dana: Only when I hired myself as an actor.

Neely: So what was the reception?

Dana: The only time I’ve ever written my own material was when it was a show that I was producing or have written. Usually, it’s really hard because when you’re an actor on a sitcom that you’re not writing, you have a duty to define the character on the stage to make it easier for them to write for you and to give them something to write to. And at the time (on “Working”), it was a perfect storm of bad communication. I don’t think I had the skill set to present them with something that they could write to and they didn’t have the skill set to write something consistently. Unless it was their intention to do a character who was that schizophrenic, which they would never tell me. When I did other shows, like “Seinfeld,” I was completely happy to shut my mouth and hit my mark.

Neely: Correct me if I’m wrong here, but it was always my impression that you create a character on the page and then you cast the person to play that character and it’s up to the actor to act that character the way it was written.

Dana: The character that I played on “Working” was never a character. It was just a punchline delivery system. It was played by a different actor in the pilot and then they cast me and I played it one way in the audition to get the part. But the way I played it in the audition never made it to the first episode. I was too intimidated by everything else that was going on. I was a C-string cast member, anyway, and couldn’t really raise an objection. Then by the time I did, it was too late. I was just low-hanging fruit.

Neely: If I get around to asking you about your best and worst experiences, I’m going to put that down as a low point.

Dana: I’m not sure if it’s that, but it was definitely my easiest job. Working in a sitcom is pretty pretty sweet. It’s hard to find something to really complain about.

Neely: I know you went to U. Mass., but did you finish?

Dana: No I didn’t. I left after 2½ semesters. My college experience was working as a standup. The classes were sort of this annoyance.

Neely: So you quit to go on the road as a comedian.

Dana: Yeah. To go be a standup.

Neely: Well, someday you can go back and finish school because it would add so much more to your life.

Dana: (chuckles) Exactly. I am an idol of drop-outs everywhere.

Neely: At what point did you come out to LA?

Dana: I moved to San Francisco in 1987, knowing that I would move to LA soon after. What I wanted to do as a performer, I didn’t think I was quite ready to be in LA. LA was pretty much the major leagues and San Francisco was a Triple A club. But it was close enough to LA that you could sort of develop a network of places, clubs, to make a living. I had a great old time. I was living in San Francisco in my mid twenties, making a living as a comic. It was a great time. So the fondness that people have when they recall their college experience, mine was really more when I was a standup in San Francisco and LA in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

Neely: Did you always want to write or is it impossible to separate the writing from the performing?

Dana: It’s impossible to separate them; they feed off each other. It’s one and the same. Since I left “The Simpsons,” I’ve been writing features and I enjoy that as well. I love painting in that broad canvas. I’d love to write movies and act in movies and fart around.

Neely: Have you been in any movies?

Dana: Yeah. I’ve had small roles in a bunch of movies.

Neely: So that’s still on the horizon for you…

Dana: Yeah. In the 90’s when I was acting a lot I had a lot of bit parts in things – “Mystery Men,” “My Fellow Americans,” “Reality Bites” – all those kinds of films. Since the pilot, I’ve re-energized my acting career which is ongoing and pretty interesting. There’s a low budget film that I’m going to make.

Neely: Do you still have that tight circle of friends that you had when you came out here? Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofolo, Judd Apatow…

Dana: I still see them, but now it’s as much as people see their college friends. It’s sort of the same thing. When you see each other it’s like you haven’t seen each other since yesterday, even though it might have been a year and a half.

Neely: I know what your least favorite television experience was. What was your favorite television experience?

Dana: That wasn’t my least favorite. My least favorite television experience was a pilot I wrote for Comedy Central which I actually think is the best thing I ever wrote. And they had me do endless, endless, endless, endless, endless, endless rewrites; refining it down into the minutia where I thought they were clearly just giving me notes for the budget, and then they finally said, “Yeah. We just don’t have the money to make this.” That was in an earlier regime. It was basically the movie “Zombieland” a year and a half before the movie “Zombieland.”

Neely: I can see where that’s a gut wrencher.

Dana: One of many. But as George Meyer of “The Simpsons” described Show Business - “On to the next humiliation.”

Neely: (laughter) What was your favorite television experience?

Dana: Doing “Seinfeld.” I was on the last season of “Seinfeld” playing a character called Fragile Frankie Merman who gave Jerry a van that he didn’t want. My feelings got hurt and I went into Central Park and dug a hole and hid in it. I still get recognized for that. It was kind of funny.

Neely: How about favorite books – now and in the past.

Dana: I, oddly enough, don’t know how to read (laughter) which I find interesting in that I’ve done so well. Now-a-days with the limited time I have, I basically read non-fiction. I can read when I’m on the treadmill and that’s about it. I think that Katherine Dunne’s Geek Love is a book that I read, probably in college. The book really affected me because it created this incredibly complex world and the motivations of the characters were amazingly human and normal. These bizarre inhabitants of a freak show, but they were absolutely as normal and flawed as anyone else. I find that that echoes through. I just read Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s War and in a way it’s the same thing. You get all the way up to the highest levels of government and everything is still about people’s personality flaws, ego and turf and agendas and settling scores. I’m fascinated by the personality of politics and how character defines history. History is really just people being true to their character, flaws and all. That’s what defines and writes human history; it’s very little to do with anything more grandiose than that.

Neely: Do you read to your kids?

Dana: Yeah. And that’s the great thing. My 8 year old is now just getting into reading in a big way. She’s about a year away from Harry Potter. I’m very excited for her. She’s a lot like me; she’s going to just dive in there and just vanish.

Neely: What do you read them at night? I loved reading to my son. There’s a whole world of children’s’ literature out there that’s accessible and still interesting to parents.

Dana: My oldest is funny because she’s dark, like me. She likes the Goosebumps books and spooky stuff like that.

Neely: What about Roald Dahl?

Dana: That’s a little too hard for her right now, but she does like this book called A Dark Dark Room which is like these weird little Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Her younger sister, the 6 year old, is more of a princess, more dainty. She has no use for monsters.

Neely: So you’re not having group reading sessions. Each one gets her own.

Dana: Yeah, they all get a little bit of time… away from each other. Because they go to the same school, one’s in second grade and the other’s in first, they’re just down the hall from each other. They see each other at lunch. So they want a little bit of alone time at the end of the day.

Neely: I can see that. So, what are you watching on television now?

Dana: I’m at that point now where I watch just “Charlie Rose,” “Mad Men,” and “Boardwalk Empire.” I’ve recently gotten into the late 60’s “Dragnet.” They’re all out on DVD now and I’m completely enamored of Jack Webb’s story telling ability which drives like a snowcat through a blizzard. He just plows ahead. I really enjoy them – the incredibly no frills performances and dialogue. They’re like tiny little Clifford Odets plays. They just clip along.

Right now I’m in my child rearing years so everything I’m reading and watching is just in snippets.

Neely: I highly recommend this new compilation DVD (Costco has them) of early TV detectives (keeping in mind that most of it is crap) from the 50’s to early 60’s. There are about 12 episodes of the first season of “Dragnet.”

Dana: The black and white ones? I have a giant package of them.

Neely: Most of them were originally radio plays.

Dana: I have those too. Lee Marvin is unbelievable.

Neely: He is!! That one is just brilliant – one of the best of them all. You could already see his star power, and this was before “The Wild One” with Brando and his coffee throwing psycho in “The Big Heat.”

Dana: Back then they were not afraid to let 2 people talk for 5 minutes. There wasn’t this frenetic need to fill it with action. Actually, though, some of the best television in history is going on right now. “The Wire” is as good as anything. “Mad Men” I think is amazing. I think “Boardwalk Empire” is going to grow into something historic. It’s all in what you like. I find it interesting that some of the best stuff is off on these cable channels. The networks have been relegated to procedural drama delivery systems; it’s all about how you solve the murder.

Neely: I hate procedurals. They’re written by template. In going back to Jack Webb, I don’t share your enthusiasm for him as a writer, but what has blown me away, and especially looking at the really early ones, is what an incredible director he was.

Dana: By storyteller, I meant as a director. He didn’t really write a lot of those. It was his economy of camera movement, it was almost shot like a documentary in a weird way. Really interesting.

Neely: I think he understood more about using unusual camera angles as a POV device at that early stage of television than almost anyone did. It was very theatrical.

Dana: “The DI,” was a movie he directed. He’s under-rated; he’s very cinematic. David Mamet wrote one of the best books on writing I’ve ever read. Mamet said everything should lead the viewer to ask “what happens next?” And if you don’t leave them asking “What happens next? What does she do next? Where does he go next? What does he see next? What does he say next?” then it’s not working. The actor’s job is to serve the story and Jack Webb, in those “Dragnets,” adhered to that decades before Mamet’s edict; but it was the same thing. There were very few flourishes and indulgent moments. They just cranked along. He managed to tell a lot of story in a very short time.

Neely: Mentors along the way?

Dana: I’ve had a lot of great ones. There’s a comedian and writer named Kevin Rooney who, when I first moved to LA, really took me under his wing. In terms of standup, he was incredibly influential and gave me advice that I still use to this day and pass on to other comics. He’s a great writer, too. I think Mike Scully and George Meyer of “The Simpsons” both made me a much better writer just by being around them and watching them cut through the crap. If Jack Webb was about getting to the story, then Mike and George were about getting to what’s funny and then moving on and get to the next funny. I would say those three people have been a big big influence on me as a writer and a performer.

Neely: What other pilots have you written that have come close to pick up?

Dana: I wrote a pilot called “World on a String” that was made in about ’97 and that supposedly got close. I had a show on TV called “Super Adventure Team” which was the movie “Team America” a year and a half before “Team America.” And to their credit, they did clearly see the show because they used my entire voice cast. And then this show on Comedy Central two years ago that never got close but I think that in terms of what my job is as a writer came the closest the capturing what I pitched to them at the time, and one I thought was a show that really would have said something. The premise of the show… it was pitched as the cast of “Seinfeld” in the world of “I Am Legend.” After the apocalypse, we’ll be in shock for about a month and then we’ll go back to business as usual and people will be jerks and rude and people will cheat on their girlfriends but it will just happen in the back drop of the apocalypse. I think I captured it really well and that’s the one where I kick myself. But I try not to kick myself too hard because I’m all about what’s next. You can spend your life griping about something that didn’t happen.

Neely: Yeah, I spend my life doing that…

Dana: Well, one day you don’t wake up so it’s really not a good thing. What’s going to happen is that you get to the end of the race and you realize there wasn’t a race.

Neely: Who said that?

Dana: My friend Ray Green who’s a public radio producer. We were talking about friends of ours, now dead, and how they lived for their grudges. One day they went to bed and didn’t wake up and that was it. They should have enjoyed those last 50 years.

Neely: How has your comedy changed as you’ve gotten older and as a dad?

Dana: I think it gets better. The more you experience life, the funnier you’re going to be. I always find it crazy when you read about comedians who go “I don’t want to go into therapy because I’m afraid it will hurt my comedy.” How can getting more in touch with who you are… how can that negatively influence your artistic fiber. That always boggled my mind. I think the only stuff I do that’s any good is the stuff I’m going to do tomorrow. The more you live life, the richer the palette of colors you get to pull from. I thought my last special was much better than the special that came before that and I hope my next special will be better than the one that came before it.

Neely: Have you got another special coming up?

Dana: I’m just now starting to put together the material for it. It will be a lot of fun.

Neely: By the way, there is a book I’ll recommend that you read and it’s non-fiction so it fits in with your present day needs. It’s about the era that came right before you in stand up – Leno, Letterman, Boosler, Williams and Seinfeld, among others. It’s a book called I’m Dying Up Here by Bill Noedelseder. I thought it was excellent.

Dana: That’s a great book. Was that the one about the strike?

Neely: Yes.

Dana: I know a lot of people in that book. I have it in a pile somewhere.

Neely: I really loved it; it just flies along. It’s one of those books where you’re laughing and laughing and then you’re incredibly depressed.

Dana: Well as I’ve often said, nobody goes into standup comedy because they have their emotional shit together.

Neely: Anything you wish you could do over?

Dana: No. Really, no. Despite appearances, I’m a super fortunate person. I certainly wish that some things had happened differently but I’m pretty content with the way things are.

Neely: Where or what are you working now?

Dana: Like I said, I’m putting together material for a new special. I’m pitching a show with an actress named Rachel Harris. We had an idea together that we’re trying to assemble into something. And I’m getting ready write a feature that I’ll make as a down and dirty supernatural comedy.

Neely: You gonna’ be in it?

Dana: Yeah, I’m gonna be in it, which is why it’s going to be down and dirty because no one is going to pay to have me star in it. I don’t care. I’m not doing it to make money, I’m doing it because I want to do it. That’s probably the best reason to do stuff.

Neely: I think it always has been, but I think a lot of us lose sight of that.

Dana: I always look at a movie I think is really funny, “Foot Fist Way,” as an example. Have you ever seen it.

Neely: No I haven’t.

Dana: It’s the movie that put Danny McBride (“Eastbound and Down”) on the map. The reason it got made with him as the star was because he made it. Period. He got it made. The same with “Shaun of the Dead” and Simon Pegg.

Neely: Oh my god, I love that movie!

Dana: You get it made because you do it. Don’t wait for anybody to give you a break or let you do something. Just do it.

Neely: You have so much insight and it’s been so much fun talking to you. Thanks for spending the time. I’m so flattered you made the time to talk to me. You have a new fan in me and I can’t wait to read and see more.

{jcomments on}

“It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, A beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?” – Mr. Rogers


What: Goody Valetta, the original Goody, opened a deli in the North End of Boston in 1954; in 1962 he added espresso to the menu and it became the place where locals and tourists alike came to gather.

Who: Goody Valetta, the grandson of the founder, now runs Goody’s with the help of his mother Sylvia, his acerbic sister Terry, and father John; but Goody is the heart and soul around whom everyone gathers. He’s warm and direct, generous and takes no prisoners.  His circle of friends range from Tommy, a general factotum for the Irish Mob run by Taffy (so named because at one time he pulled off one of the ears of a rival as though he were pulling taffy); his charmingly immature cousin and roommate Pete; Sid, a New York lawyer new to the neighborhood; and Paulie, friend from childhood who adds just the right touch of sleazy on the make Italian stereotype to the group.


Paulie: Hey! Who’s the (bleep) who double parked his Mercedes out front?

Goody gets up to calm him.

Goody: Hey, hey… Paulie…

Paulie: Hey nothing, Goody. I’m sick of people moving into our neighborhood and being rude. A little respect, huh?

An attractive woman approaches. Hot, early 30’s.

Woman: I’m sorry… Did I block you in?

Paulie (taken aback) No… It’s just…

Woman: I thought I could get in and out quick. I’ll move it right now—

Paulie: No, no, it’s fine. I’m sorry. (Beat) I thought you were gonna be ugly.

She exits. They both watch her. When she’s gone Goody slaps Paulie on the back of the head.

Goody: Don’t ever talk to my customers like that. EVER.

They sit with the guys. Paulie is still watching her leave.

Paulie: You think she’s seeing anybody?

Sid: What’s it to you?

Paulie: Oh what, Sid, you don’t think I can get with her just cause I’m not a big shot lawyer like you?

Pete: No, because look at you and look at her. Her: business suit, stylish hair, manicured nails. You: greased back hair, gold chain and enough cologne on to mitigate every other smell in this deli and we’re like two feet from the salami case.

Goody: It’s true Paulie. You ever meet an Italian stereotype you didn’t like? All you need is a ring of sausages around your neck and your fly undone and you could be our Italian Buddha.

Into Goody’s deli, and he hopes in some way his life, walks the pretty Lisa, a new neighbor who has just moved in across the street.  Too realistic about his looks to hold out any real hope of gaining anything but Lisa’s friendship, they, nevertheless are oddly attracted to the kindness each senses in the other and a shared love of Opera. That they can still sense a budding kinship even after Goody’s father has a heart to heart with Lisa is nothing short of miraculous:

John: You like my son?

Lisa: Goody? Yeah, he’s a great guy.

John: No, no, no, no. Do you like him?

Lisa: Don’t you think you’re being a bit presumptuous Mr. Valetta?

John: No. (then) My son hasn’t had a date in three years. There’s a woman out there though. And I don’t want him tearing himself up over something he’ll never get so that he misses her when she does show up. So why don’t you give the guy a break and get your kicks elsewhere.

And complications continue to entangle his friends when Tommy learns that Pete has stiffed Taffy of several large on a debt repayment. Pete will need to learn a lesson and Tommy has been instructed by Taffy to teach it – break Pete’s thumb and obtain title to Pete’s one and only possession – his Mustang.  If Tommy doesn’t break Pete’s thumb, then Taffy will send over a goon to break both of Pete’s legs.  A veritable Hobson’s choice.

No Meaner Place: Flebotte has an uncanny ability in setting the scene and fully developing the character of the protagonist  in the cold open:

Angle on Goody Valetta, mid 30’s, overweight, pleasant enough looking, kinda boyish but not exactly eye candy. A young guy in a suit is at the front of the line.

Young Guy: I’ll have a half caff mocha latte whip to go please.

Goody: No.

Young Guy: Pardon?

Goody: You don’t want that.

Young Guy: I think I know what I want.

Goody: Trust me on this.

Young Guy: Am I going to get a coffee or what?

Goody: “Coffee?” Yes! You are definitely going to get coffee. But there’s no coffee in what you said. Let’s break it down. “Half caff” that would connote that you want decaf which I don’t believe in. It’s like getting a flu shot and telling them to fill the syringe with water. Don’t carry the stuff anyway. Okay. “Mocha.” You want chocolate let me make you a nice cocoa. “Latte” – milk. Lots of milk. Another unnecessary agent added to the coffee to rob it of its original essence. And “whipped cream”? (Shakes his head) I’d slap my own mother if she put whipped cream on a cup of coffee. Isn’t that right, Ma?

Sylvia Valetta, Goody’s mom, sixties, plump, she works behind the counter part time, comes with a to-go cup and hands it to Goody.

Sylvia: (Flatly) It’s true. He’s a bastard.

She crosses off. Hands the to-go cup to the guy.

Goody: Here. This is a double shot of some of the finest Italian Roast espresso with a dab of steamed milk foam. Enjoy.

Young Guy: But that’s not what I want…

Goody: I don’t give people what they want. I give them what they deserve. And you deserve good Italian Roast. It’s on the house.

Sylvia crosses back with a small bag.

Goody: Here’s a couple biscotti. That’ll take care of the sweet tooth. Okay. I’m done with you.

The audience knows everything about Goody’s values, warmth, and personality within this short first scene.  Circumstance and situation will fill in all the rest of the details as time goes on; but from the very outset we know, like and admire Goody.  That his friends are “types” takes nothing away from the rich nougat center of this piece. All comedy is dependent on character and characters, and Flebotte has provided both in spades.  NBC picked up a number of dramas and comedies in 2005-2006, the season they chose not to produce this pilot.  With “Will and Grace” in its final year, and as two of the three comedy pilots that were picked up to series tanked almost immediately, one would have thought that they might have hedged their bets a bit better and at least kept this one on a back burner.  More importantly, why is there an expiration date on television pilot scripts?

Life Lessons for Writers: Shelf life is important when it comes to milk, not writing.

Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: Thank you so much for talking to me and taking time from the writers’ room at “Desperate Housewives.”  When we most recently spoke you mentioned that most of the last script was thrown out and that you guys had to scramble to get something completed for the shoot that started today.

Dave: We do that every week; it’s just now we’re on the last two episodes and because it’s the end of the season the stakes are higher. If you rip out one little thing then you rip up everything, and then the Network has contradictory thoughts. It’s crazy. I’m actually just taking a break from it right now

 

Neely: Well we’re actually here to discuss your pilot “Goody.” I’ve loved this script for years and could not believe it was never produced as a pilot. I know that “Goody” was all set for production; the cast was in place and the best ½ hour director in the business, James Burrows, had been attached.  This allegedly didn’t go forward because of a cast contingency.  What was the network looking for?

Dave: We really had everything in place, but it was a bunch of things. We had Will Sasso who was all right as our star but he was in second position for our show. We were supposed to shoot in late April, early May but ABC wouldn’t let him out so Kevin Reilly, who was head of programming at NBC at the time, said we should just push and shoot it in June. And I said to Kevin that my fear was that he’d come back from the upfronts satisfied with his slate and not care about this because he would have all of his shows in place. But he said that it wasn’t true and that shooting the pilot late wouldn’t even preclude it from the September schedule; he assured me that we were going to shoot this.  At that point I wasn’t even concerned about getting it on the air; I just wanted to get it shot. And sure enough, two days before the table read, we had the cast, the sets were built, we were ready to go, and Jimmy, Dick and I got a phone call. Reilly no longer wanted to do it, allegedly because Will Sasso was in second position. I don’t think that was really the case, I think he just never shined to the project. I don’t think he ever really wanted to do the project; it actually was getting done because Jimmy Burrows picked this script out of a pile.

Neely: Was the problem with Will Sasso real?

Dave: He was on “Less than Perfect” and was like 8th on the Call Sheet.  There were rumblings that they didn’t want to let him out and McPherson wasn’t happy about it and they made it difficult but I think we could have worked it out. Billy Gardell, who I wrote it for, was said to be too “on the nose.”

Neely: And “on the nose” is a bad thing?  I so love Billy Gardell.  He’s hilarious and warm and hilarious.  There is an unforgettable scene with him in the short-lived TV series entitled “Lucky” where he goes out to earn some money by being hit (“accidentally” and repeatedly) by moving cars. I can’t think of anyone else who could have pulled it off as well –embracing slapstick, pathos, and idiocy in one fell swoop.

Dave: I’ve always loved the movie “Marty” and I wanted a character like that – someone where you had to look a little harder to find the beauty. It was a hard sell; the cast was very average looking. No one was a beauty; there was one girl who was the love interest and she was very beautiful, but everyone else looked like regular people. I don’t know, maybe that hurt us.

Neely: As an aside, I just wrote a blog for Studio System about how networks have forgotten that the shows create the stars, not the stars that create the shows.  http://www.blssresearch.com/research-wrap?detail/C7/more_stars_than_there_are_in_the_heavens.

The best thing that can happen is for the audience to identify with your cast and there aren’t a whole lot of regular people out there for us to identify with.

Dave: Jimmy and I had the opportunity to pitch it to Reilly again and I made the mistake of pitching it from a “passion” point of view and what I should have done was explain that this was about the characters and I wanted to redefine the sitcom. Everyone responded to the character of Pete getting his thumb broken but were thinking of this as a traditional sitcom wondering “how’s he going to get out of it;” but that was the point, this was real life and “he doesn’t get out of it.” At the end of the first season he was going to disappear because he couldn’t stop gambling and his body would show up a year later.  There were a lot of interesting and unusual places I wanted to go.

The “dark” and the “light” are right next to each other and I’ve always been able to fin the funny even in the darkest of situations. The comedy resonates much more when it’s juxtaposed with the dark side, when it’s based on something real. I was going to go all kinds of places and I knew I could make it funny.  I wanted to do a dramedy that we’d shoot proscenium style. Mostly on a single set with maybe a couple of scenes outside and make this about these people and their lives. In traditional TV you put your characters in predicaments and then a week later they’re all better.  I didn’t want to do that. It would be like a play. I didn’t want easy resolutions.

Neely: Besides Jimmy Burrows, you had a heavy hitter behind you in Dick Wolf.  Now there has to be a story in that because this is not a guy know for a lot of yuks.

Dave: I had just been fired off “Will and Grace.” Max (Mutchnick) and David (Kohan) had come back and I became superfluous so I left the show in October; I had two years left on my deal so I wanted to develop something. Nena Rodrigue who does the non-traditional stuff for Dick Wolff is a good friend of mine and she wanted to get him into comedy. I wrote my script in two weeks and turned it in and Dick was sort of perplexed and said he didn’t get it, but everyone else loved it so he said “Go with God.” Once Jimmy Burrows signed on Dick got very enthusiastic, but he wasn’t very involved. He was involved in some of the casting and went to a few of the meetings, but mainly his involvement was as a backer and a producer. As a side note, Jimmy Burrows had been part of the team that had just fired me from “Will and Grace.” So when he picked up my script and said he loved it and wanted to shoot it, I thought “No Way! The guy just fired me one month ago.” When I went in to see him and asked why he was interested after he’d just let me go, he said, “Honey, that’s (“Will and Grace”) not your voice, this is.”

Neely: But comedy chops or no comedy chops, Dick Wolff was a 2 ton gorilla for NBC and that alone should have yielded an order.

Dave: It should have, but I think the 2 ton gorilla didn’t always get along with people at NBC and it was a case of two immovable forces. I actually thought with Dick Wolff behind it and Jimmy Burrows as well…in the end, nothing happened.

Neely: Were you happy with the casting process?

Dave: It was great. We got all the people we wanted – It was great. We got all the people we wanted – Will Sasso, Vincent Pastore, Michael Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Beth Lacke and Elizabeth Regan. We had a great cast. I just saw Jon Bernthal in “The Pacific” and he was terrific. He would have played Paulie and he was so authentic and so funny; and Michael Weaver came in and had a better Irish brogue than most of the authentic Irish actors who auditioned and he had a comedy background; Vinnie Pastore was great – the exchange his character had with his wife was lovely; he brought something different to it, something I wasn’t thinking of. The network loved him because they thought he was a marketable face and Jimmy loved him. The lead was the hard part and the leading lady – but Beth became available when her pilot dropped out and she was a dream.

The casting process can be tedious because everybody and his brother comes out. And when you’re “testing” Italians (and I can say this because I’m 100% Sicilian) you get these guys who come in the room then stop in the middle of the audition and tell you, they “Gotta go take a leak” - they think that’s what you’re looking for.  We’re not looking for Italians we’re looking for people who can act. Otherwise I’ve got family I can throw in there. You just end up rolling your eyes and thinking “how did you even get in here?” They’re trying to show you that they’re real Italian.

Neely:  Going back to Kevin Reilly being lukewarm about the show and then going to the upfronts and dropping this, one of the shows he picked up was this real dog entitled “Four Kings.” Perhaps they felt the shows were too similar as “Four Kings” was about four male friends.  It’s like there’s a TV Universe where there can’t be more than one show about four male (or female for that matter) friends on at the same time because all friends are the same.  And then, of course, “Four Kings” was created by Mutchnick and Kohan and they had more mojo than you.

Dave: That’s what’s really odd because they were suing NBC at the time (which was the reason I was originally brought on to “Will and Grace” because they were no longer welcome there – until they were again).  I read the script of “Four Kings” and it was okay, the produced pilot, however, was dreadful. But actually, I think that what occurred was that NBC was hedging their bets with “Four Kings” because “Goody” just didn’t follow the format of a traditional sitcom. My show had no easy breezy resolutions and the characters were well intentioned but crass. In so many ways I thought I was writing a play. But I think my show didn’t go, not because of Kevin Reilly, but because I didn’t sell it right. Saying I wanted to reinvent the multi-camera sitcom sounds pretty arrogant, but I wanted to do something that hadn’t been seen since “All in the Family.”

I think someone will someday do something like this on network; I’m just afraid it won’t be me. I think my future development is with cable because the networks know what I have to say and are no longer interested.

Neely: I think there might still be a life for it on cable. There’s universality in the story and you have such a distinct voice.  But whether it ever goes or doesn’t go, I have two questions and the first one is: Was Goody ever going to get the girl?

Dave: I don’t think so. What I wanted to do was something like “Marty.” You know there’s a caste system in dating that relies on looks, and here you’ve got this really pretty girl from a different place who finds herself falling in love with a guy she can’t fully embrace. There’s real love there but I didn’t know for sure if he would get her in the end. It was a complicated mess – she’s got ambivalence, he’s not really putting himself out there because he’s afraid of getting hurt. I went back and forth but I didn’t really think they should get together.

Neely: I loved the lack of resolution. But question number two, and this is really important – would we have ever gotten the chance to meet Taffy?

Dave: I don’t know.  As I mentioned, his “customer” was going to disappear; the presence of his character would only be there for half a year; his henchman Tommy was going to end up in jail – there were lots of other stories I wanted to tell.

 

Neely: You know, since this didn’t actually get made, these rights should revert to you.

Dave: I know but once something has the stink of rejection on it, it’s really hard to get someone to look at it in a different light. They do in some circumstances but the lack of courage of conviction is so disheartening.  You know, people love it and then they talk about it and then they talk themselves out of it.  They talk themselves out of more good things because of all the testing; testing that gives you things like “Emeril.”

Neely: What inspired you to write this? Do you know these guys?

Dave: I just made it up. I am from Boston and my relatives are these guys, but lighter.  The father, the mother, Goody – these are all people that I know. You grow up in a Sicilian household like I did and the holidays are all big and loud. I know the North End and it’s been undergoing gentrification for the last 30 years and the older Italians are getting pushed out. I mean there are still pockets of them there but I thought it would be just great if I could create a place that was like the last refuge for the neighborhood.

Neely: I usually try to find a way to repurpose material in a different medium but this is so very television and definitely not a film; but I’m struck by something you said earlier.  This would make a great play, because in theater, you don’t have to have resolutions. They can be open ended and about character, and this is all about character. It shares some similarities with August Wilson’s character studies when his series ventured into the 50s and 60s.  Have you ever written a play?

Dave: It’s so funny that you ask because I just got theatrical representation with Abrams Artists in New York for a play that I wrote. I just met with Amy Brenneman and she wants to help get the play done, possibly by being in it.  I just had a reading of it and we’re trying to get it put up at one of the small theaters.  It’s taken me 7 years to get it to this point and I’m finally happy with it. It’s a three act that’s sexual but not really just about sex. It’s called “Fuck T*lk” where the a in “talk” has the asterisk, not the u in “fuck.” I really don’t want to turn “Goody” into a play; it was always something bigger to me, something where I could push out the edges of storytelling on a network.

Neely: You have so much interesting work out there, but one pilot you’ve written has taken on almost cult status – “Working, Dating and Dying in Hollywood.” In a nutshell, it’s about a comedy writer with cystic fibrosis. Where did this come from and what’s the connection to cystic fibrosis?

Dave: I was the one with cystic fibrosis and then 13 years ago I had a double lung transplant. Anyway, I went in to HBO with Susie Fitzgerald to pitch a show about an Italian, of course, family who run a family restaurant that’s going bankrupt and so they start shooting and producing porn in their restaurant at night in order to stay solvent.  It was a comedy, it was fun, and it had a lot of rich characters. So we’re engaging in small talk and Carolyn Strauss, who was head of HBO at the time, turned to whoever else was in the room and said “Did you know that Dave had a double lung transplant?” And that was it and I pitched and the next day I got a call from my agent saying that they wanted to do “the transplant story.” But I didn’t pitch a transplant story.  Well anyway I wrote it in two days; they loved it; they wanted to change a lot of it. I was going through a divorce at the time and was still in a two year development deal that was paying me a lot of money so I really couldn’t afford to do it. Besides it was going in a direction I didn’t want to go and they wanted to remove one of my favorite devices – the animation, which was a very different way of doing exposition. Eventually the rights reverted back to me.  It’s one of those pieces like “Goody” that people like and always want to know why it didn’t get made.

 

Neely: I’ve never been a big fan of phlegm and what astonished me is that it didn’t seem to be as big a problem as I thought it would be for other people.

 

Dave: Why do something if you’re not going to go all the way. I think people responded to it because I didn’t hide anything. I made it hard hitting – it was real. The biggest compliment I can get from anyone is if they think what I wrote was honest story telling. Cystic Fibrosis is a big part of my life.

Neely: The double lung transplant, was that a cure for the Cystic Fibrosis?

Dave: It was a cure for the lungs because you don’t have the coughing any more but the body still has it; it’s in the pancreas and your cells still have it; but without the transplant I would have been dead at 38, no doubt. It was exchanging one illness for one that is easier to live with.

 

Neely: This year you created “Sherri” loosely based on the life of comedienne and “View” hostess Sherri Shepherd.  How were you chosen for that project?

Dave: Nina Wass, a really good friend, asked me to do the show and I wasn’t interested. She asked me to meet Sherri and hear her life story and I said sure. I’d already known Sherri because we worked together on “Suddenly Susan.” We met and Sherri pitched her idea of a single camera show that was a really dark acerbic look at her divorce but there were a lot of laughs. So I agreed to do it and then we took it around and ended up selling it to the CW. It got softer after the first pass but then they said they wanted to do it as a multi cam and I said fine, I’ll write the pilot but then I’m done because it was no longer interesting to me. They ended up taking all the good stuff out of it – all the adult stuff. So I shot it and I’m a consultant on it, but it’s not a passion project; it’s not what it could have been which was very interesting to me. Terry Minsky took it over and she’s done a really great job.

 

Neely: What brought you out here in the first place?

Dave: I went to college as an advertising major and a writing minor and I had a class called “How to write sitcoms” and saw that I could make $80K in a year.  So I said to my wife – let’s move to California. I wrote some specs and waited tables for three years and then got an agent. I was writing with a partner at the time and we did a “Larry Sanders” spec that got us attention After about a year we switched agents and we got our first job – a presentation for She TV with Bonnie and Terry Turner; and then “Good Advice.” After “Good Advice” I was on my own so I had to write a new “Larry Sanders” spec which also got me hired.

 

Neely: Did you ever work in advertising?

Dave: No. That first year I got a C in advertising and A’s in my writing classes and changed majors. It was a leap of faith because I didn’t think you could make a living as a writer until I saw that thing about making 80 Grand. I came from a household where we never made more than 20 Grand and there were 9 of us, so I just thought “Hee Haw!”

Neely: Well you did suffer for your art.

Dave: You mean waiting tables? That wasn’t suffering; everyone has to put in their time and pay their dues. The suffering was the waiting, not the waiting tables.

 

Neely: What’s next?

Dave: I’m in negotiations to write a script for James Gandolfini at HBO – it’s my version of a French Canadian series called “Taxi 22.” It’s about a cab driver in New York. I’ve got another idea I’m going to pitch to HBO in about a month.

 

Neely: Can’t wait to follow more of the adventures of Dave.

Neely can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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“May you live as long as you wish and love as long as you live.” – Robert Heinlein

Neely: We were speaking previously of the serendipitous turn your life took when you were relaunched as an actor, but did you continue writing the whole time?

David: I did continue to write for a while. And then I reached a point where I handed in a script to Fox and I had a very distinct, eye-opening, cathartic emotional reaction to handing that script in. I felt like I had gotten out of jail. I remember thinking, “You should pay attention to this feeling.” What I suppose I was experiencing, once again, was burn-out.

Screenwriting is so rugged because you can be a very successful screenwriter without ever seeing your work on screen. I began to wonder if I was going to reach the end of my creative life and have nothing to show but a stack of scripts on my shelf that had never actually been made into movies. I wondered if these unproduced scripts were going to represent my life’s work.

With both “Available Men,” my short movie, and “Boston Legal,” I had been reminded of what it was like to actually have an audience again - to have regular Joes see the work and respond to it, enjoy it. To actually hear people laugh; to receive emails from people who had really enjoyed what I’d done was magical. It was like someone had opened a window and all this fresh air had suddenly come in again. I felt renewed and I realized that at least for the next stretch of my life, whatever I was going to do creatively, I was going to make sure I had an audience for it.

Neely: So what is it that you did do?

David: I did a couple of things. I started performing in Spoken Word shows, which are very big here in L.A. Writers perform 8 to 10 minute first person stories that are told in front of an audience. I don’t know if this form of entertainment is big anywhere else, but it’s very big in L.A. It was a huge reminder that there’s no shortage of amazing writing talent in L.A. So I suddenly found myself out there amid this talent pool and it was, again, this incredibly great shot in the arm to go out and perform a story in front of an audience and have them laugh or be moved by it in some way.. I did a show, maybe a year and a half ago, and I told a story about my ex-partner. The reaction to it was so strong that it felt like it had crossed over the line from being just storytelling to some kind of theater. I was stunned that so many people wanted to talk to me afterwards about what feelings or memories that story had generated for them.

I drove away that night wondering if it would be possible to do an entire evening of love stories. And I kept thinking about it. The idea wouldn’t go away. So finally I called up the Comedy Central Stage where I had performed a bunch of shows in the past and I said, “I’ve got this idea.” And they said, “Okay. That’s a good nugget of an idea. When you have more to show us, let us know.” So I hung up the phone and I thought, “To hell with you. In that case, I’m not doing anything!“ Five days later they called back and said, “Somebody just cancelled. We have an opening. Do you want to do your show? We trust you if you want to do it.”

By this time, I had developed this new business policy where I would say yes to anything. So I just gave them a very enthusiastic yes. And they said, “You realize that this is 6 weeks from tonight, right?” And I said, “Yes I do. I will be there with a show six weeks from tonight.” And that is exactly what happened. Six weeks later I did this show called “David Dean Bottrell Makes Love: A One Man Show.” And I stood there and told true stories from my love life starting at age 6 up to the present.

I knew I didn’t want to do a chronological storytelling show. I wanted to chop the timeline up and have it be sort of a patchwork. I also knew that I didn’t want to do a show about myself; I wanted to do a show about a subject. And that subject was going to be love and what that word means to you at different moments in your life, but also what the pursuit of love means as well. What do we give up and what do we gain. That first show at Comedy Central sold out and went over like gangbusters so we booked two more nights at another theater, Rogue Machine. Those sold out almost instantly on the word of mouth from the first show. I expanded the script a little bit; I turned it up as I went. We wound up having this incredible run at Rogue Machine where we mostly played to standing-room-only audiences. It became this little cult, underground, comedy hit. It was a remarkable experience. It was so cathartic on every level – personally, as a performer and as a writer. It was a huge lesson for me in all three departments.

Neely: As you well know, I’ve seen the show twice and I’m sure that at some point I will see it again because it’s incredibly universal, incredibly moving and you wear your heart on your sleeve and allow us to laugh with you. It’s very brave. I found it to be an extraordinarily well written, very funny, at times poignant, but always open and almost raw experience.

David: I was very fortunate to get Jim Fall as my director. He’s phenomenal and his guidance was great. Throughout the process, I stuck to what I believe about writing or acting or anything artistic, which is that you have to push a little past where you’re comfortable if it’s really going to be good. I had so little time to pull it off, then memorize it and then get out there and do it, that I don’t think it occurred to me how personal the experience was actually going to be. I was just busy trying to make sure that I drilled deep enough until I hit some truth.

The first show, it was like being shot out of a canon. I remember nothing from it other than I survived it. Comedy Central tapes those shows and about a week later they sent me a DVD. When I sat down and watched it, it was the first time it occurred to me what I’d actually said on stage in front of people; how personal it actually was. I was mortified.

Neely: Really??

David: I was. I was mortified. I suddenly thought, “Oh my god! That was a terrible mistake.” And then I realized that nobody had gone running from the room after I performed the show. And it wasn’t like any of my friends had been unable to look me in the eye after watching it. I very cautiously began to think that maybe the show might be sort of good.

Neely: My god you’re insecure!!

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“I'd love to sell out completely. It's just that nobody has been willing to buy”- John Waters.

Throughout this conversation, David and I laughed and laughed. He is an inherently funny man and sitting and talking with him is pure pleasure. Though there are notations of “laughter” within the conversation, be aware that we were laughing almost the whole time. I would love to find myself in such a situation again.

Neely: I first met you as an actor on “Boston Legal” and loved the sly evil that you could portray with such humor. That person we see on screen is very different than the person I know (I assume). How do you account for that?

David: (laughing) One of the things I loved about playing that character (Lincoln Meyer) is that he thought of himself as being very powerful. That was so much fun to do because I don’t think of myself that way at all. Lincoln had so much confidence and in real life I’m just a self-loathing wretch.

Neely: Oh… nice to know. (both laugh)

David: It was…

Neely: How unusual. (David laughs some more)

David: … it was so much fun to play somebody who felt like he could get away with anything and that the rules didn’t apply to him.

Neely: Did that particular role… playing Lincoln… did that lead to a spate of other offers where they wanted you to be that kind of slimy, self-absorbed weasel?

David: From a casting standpoint, it was both a blessing and a curse because that show sort of put me on all the casting directors’ radar. But most people didn’t know me very well because I’d been out of acting for such a long time and a lot of them thought that I actually was Lincoln Meyer… that that’s who I was in real life. Given how creepy that character was, they were very hesitant to call me for things.

Neely: (laughing) And yet, folks, it’s called ACTING!

David: Little by little I’ve been able to remedy that. But for a long time the only calls that I got were for psychopaths.

Neely: How fun! Well I think most people associate actors as the roles they see them play on screen.

But what made me realize that you were bigger than the life I was seeing there was the DVD of a short film you did at the time. What was the name of that film again?

David: “Available Men.”

Neely: Tell me about it again.

David: That little short movie was something of a minor miracle. At that time, I’d been working exclusively as a screenwriter for years and I had gotten a little burned out. I had just gone through a really rough break-up in my personal life and one morning, as I was standing at my sink contemplating if I could afford to buy a hand gun (laughing), I had the idea for this movie and it made me laugh out loud. I remember thinking, “If this idea can make me laugh on this, one of the darkest days of my life, it must be good.”

So I went upstairs and I wrote it. It took me one day to write it, and at the end of that day I thought, “Let’s just push forward.” So 30 days later I shot it and 90 days later I screened it. It was one of those little backyard guerilla projects that didn’t cost anything much to make, but luckily, for me, it played in over 130 film festivals and it won 17 awards. It completely redefined me as a writer… in Hollywood, anyway.

Suddenly I found myself in the running for directing jobs at studios because of that little short movie. It completely changed everything.

Neely: Who helped you produce it?

David: It was produced by Sherri James and Ed Bates. I’d worked with Ed before when he produced my film “Kingdom Come” at Fox Searchlight.

Neely: I’m always intrigued with short films. There’s so little outlet for them and they can be so entertaining.

Who was in it?

David: Richard Ruccolo, Brian Gattas, Jack Plotnick and Kostas Sommer - all wonderful actors. Kostas was particularly a find for me because he’s a huge star in Greece. He’s like their Brad Pitt. He just happened to be in town and was testing the waters in L.A. A friend of mine knew him and god bless him, he came in and actually read for me which was a really big deal for a short film because he was a big star. He was wonderful in it and great to work with.

Neely: How long did it take to shoot?

David: 90% of that film was shot in 13 hours. The exteriors were shot in 6 hours the following day. The final running time of the film was 15 minutes including credits.

Neely: Has it ever been online?

David: It’s online now on YouTube. (Available Men)

Neely: So for those out there who haven’t seen it, why don’t you give a synopsis of it?

David: It’s a little mistaken identity tale about an agent at one of the big 3 agencies who is right on the verge of losing his job and has been dispatched to this trendy L.A. bar with very specific orders that he must sign this new writer who has this script that everybody is crazy about. And basically, if he doesn’t sign this guy, he’s going to lose his job.

That same night, this very artistic, very sensitive and romantic gay man has come to this bar for a blind date. Through a little odd swing of circumstances, these two men mistake each other and sit down and have a drink together. The two men that they were there to meet also mistake each other and sit down and have a drink together. So basically the film is these two mistaken identity comedies happening on opposite sides of this bar.

What I’m really proud of is the way it’s structured because both parties have a meaningful conversation and leave that bar without ever knowing that they were talking to the wrong person. It’s pretty damn funny if I do say so myself.

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"I heard some good news today. The FBI and the CIA are going to start cooperating. They are going to start working together. And if you don't know the difference between the FBI and the CIA, the FBI bungles domestic crime, the CIA bungles foreign crime." —David Letterman


What: A terrorist plot to bomb the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC is suspected and The Agency has planted a group in the suburbs to uncover it.

Who: "Harry, our extremely good natured, average, everyman hero, pops a disc in his portable DVD player. A shadowy authority figure appears on the screen."

Shadowy Authority Figure: Good afternoon Harry. As you know, the Agency has discovered a mole. We are calling the mole ‘X.’ All we know about X is that he, or she, lives in Chevy Chase, MD. A quaint suburb of the nation’s capital. You are to live in this neighborhood until such time as X’s identity is determined. Here is your new address.

As a picture of the house is shown on the DVD, Harry blinks and accidentally pops out a contact lens.

Harry: Wait a minute. I didn’t get that –

Shadowy Authority Figure: Agent 14-Q17 will front as your wife, Honey. Agent 14-A23 will be your teenage son, Kip. Here are the secret codes for entrance to the house –

As Harry fumbles for his saline solution he knocks the compact DVD player to the ground, the DVD skips.

Shadowy Authority Figure (Cont.): …24 – Q. Well, that should cover it. Good luck, Harry. This tape will self destruct in five seconds.

The DVD self destructs.

Harry: Well, this should be interesting.

Needless to say, the missing information was somewhat critical to his acceptance by his new “wife” Honey, a martial arts bombshell who attacks him the moment he walks through the door without using the “secret knock.” Honey washed out of more active operations because she lost her touch – she is no longer able to chop her way through 4 to 1 odds, only 3 to 1 odds; her hammering of Harry would indicate she hasn’t lost much of her touch.  Kip, their fake teenage son, is actually 27 and has been a teenager for the last 14 years, a role that is beginning to wear him down.

On his first day on the job Harry is picked up by his carpool – the other agents assigned to the undercover task:

Chief drives the car, Harry rides shotgun. Two other spies ride in the back.

Chief: Good morning Harry. And welcome to our little team. We might not be James Bond but we like to think we can do a little spying. I’m Dick –

Phil: I’m Phil.

Phil2: I’m…also Phil.

Harry: Two Phil’s? That’s a little confusing.

Phil: Tell me about it.

Phil2: Slight glitch in the phony name assignments.

Chief: We decided it was easier to live with it than go through Agency paperwork. How’s the fake marriage working out?

Harry: Fine, fine. Kip is a sweet kid…well, man, I guess. He’s 27 right?

Chief: In March, yes. And the wife?

Harry: Who Honey? She’s…

Phil: Uh oh.

Phil2: The big pause.

Harry: No, it’s fine. She’s just a little high strung. She’ll get the hang of it.

Chief: Consider yourself lucky. I’m married twenty years to a woman who still doesn’t know I’m a spy.

Phil: She also thinks you like her cooking.

Chief: I don’t know which lie is harder to keep up.

All the spies except Harry laugh at the Chief’s joke.

Harry: I just hope we are compatible. Me and Honey I mean.

Chief: Don’t worry about that. You two were specifically put together because there was a very low probability of anything developing sexually.

No one in Harry’s fake family is quite satisfied with his or her present position – Honey wants back in the field, closer to hand-to-hand combat; Kip would like to be a real spy, if only so he doesn’t have to take Geometry ever again, and, more importantly, so he can win the fair Honey; and Harry wants nothing more than to be an inventor, instead of an insurance salesman.  When Harry announces his ambition to the Chief, he is greeted with suspicion; suspicion that may get him terminated in all senses of the word. It is, however, this very desire to pursue one of his inventions – an alarm clock tied into a coffee machine with a refrigerated cream dispenser that begins its brewing cycle when the snooze button is hit – that leads Harry to uncover the perpetrators of the plot to blow up the Lincoln Memorial.

No Meaner Place: Our view of spydom is predicated on the very serious James Bond, Bourne, and Le Carré novels; or the hilarious – Mr. Bean, Agent OSS 117, or Austin Powers. “The Domestic Front” is clearly of the slapstick variety, hewing closely to a deadpan “Get Smart.”  But Harry isn’t nearly as dumb as he looks and doesn’t seem to be entirely in on the joke.  He’s the smart guy everyone, including himself, underestimates; the guy who has dreams and aspirations just out of his grasp but, like most of the rest of us, keeps on keeping on - an everyday hero.  And it is this very “ordinariness” that keeps “The Domestic Front” grounded, for even though everyone surrounding Harry is a buffoon, Harry actually isn’t and it’s what makes this pilot smarter than the average bear (a misplaced cartoon reference). Even within the slapstick and ludicrous situations there is the melancholy that resides in Harry as he unravels the mysteries. Harry wants to think and live outside the box, but the box has been constructed of kryptonite and he’s Clark Kent.

I am always astonished at the comedy choices made by networks, as much by the ones they choose as the ones they don’t. There was plenty for them to love in the format and characters; and the stories didn’t necessarily have to follow mystery-of-the-week because the characters were so strong and much could be developed on the strictly “domestic” front as Kip and Honey try to perfect and expand their roles.

Life Lessons for Writers: How much better life would be if network executives understood a Cone of Comedy instead of a Cone of Silence.

Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: I’ve known about you for a long time; of course that sounds really creepy, doesn’t it.

David: I saw the email and I was really floored by how much you knew. I’m flattered and thrilled that anyone read “Domestic Front” and I even saw reference to “About Face.”  I couldn’t believe you knew about that one – it seems to be you and about seven other people.

Neely: You’re such a great comedic voice. I remember in the mid 90s seeing your name at Fox. Did you have a writer Overall there?

David: After I finished my producing Overall, I went into a Castle Rock Overall and then I went to Fox, so it may well have been at that time. And as a matter of fact I even had a meeting with David Kelley at some point during that stint. Perhaps you were working at his office then.

Neely: It’s possible. I actually remember creating a “David Stern” file. You’ve always had the right “screwy” voice for him.

David: I was still obsessed with “The Wonder Years” at that time, which had been my first gig, and pitched some kind of strange screwball “Wonder Years” concept. I remember him liking it but I have no idea what happened after that – just one of those things.  It’s what happens in Overall Deals – a lot of meetings and conversations and cool stuff that flies around. Whether or not it ever amounts to anything is another story entirely.

Neely: Well you did get to write a crazy schizophrenic pilot out of one of the Overalls.

David: “About Face”? I did that one after that Fox deal. It was actually on a blind script deal for HIP which was HBO’s development arm at the time. I’ve written a lot of pilots that I’ve been very pleased with and got paid plenty for but didn’t get them made. It’s frustrating and that’s kind of the crux of what you’re asking about.

Neely: That kind of frustration leads right into “Domestic Front.” This was one of those scripts that I read when I was doing development for David Kelley and never forgot it.  It falls within the realm of a traditional sitcom, which some people may find slightly old fashioned, but it plays on a number of subtle psychological factors (bringing us back to “About Face”) – especially melancholy – that give it a subversive touch of depth. What triggered this?

David: Maybe I’m just a melancholy guy… I don’t know. I’m always looking for something interesting. Comic leads are the hardest and most nuanced parts to write. They can’t just be wild and crazy, they have a show to carry; and yet you don’t want them to be just responders. It’s a very narrow palette of colors to paint with for the lead comic voice. On “Domestic Front” I imagined myself as an actual spy undercover in this situation and it felt claustrophobic but funny. I thought if I could give him that little curl of wanting to be an inventor, to be something more, you’d feel it. That goes along with what I mean by a narrow palette – a little attitude goes a long way with the lead comic voice. We don’t want too strange a lead; we do want him to be relatable, and melancholy is a part of human existence.

Neely: Was this going to be single cam or multi?

David: It was written at a time when HIP was looking for multi-camera shows. They had the “Louie” show coming out and it was a tiny bubble of time when HBO was trying to develop 4 camera shows. It was designed for 4 camera, but I feel that show in particular could easily have been adapted to single camera or animation.

Neely: It’s like you’re reading my mind because a bit later on I was going to ask you if you had ever thought of repurposing this into an animated series. Obviously, you had thought of all the different permutations.

David: Yeah. You know it never felt right. I thought, “Really? You guys want to do 4 camera? Okay, I’ll believe it when I see it.” And sure enough, they didn’t. They never really had a plan. They were never going to put this on HBO so we went around to all the networks; but at that time the networks were all exclusively about one camera comedy. Nobody bit. Even though it was designed as a multi-cam, it still would have been a challenge.  This pilot was never shot, but I did a pilot before this that was shot, called “Manhattan Man” about a family of super heroes.

Neely: Oh my god!  You did that?  The one where Ken Howard played the lead? I read that script when I was an assistant and I thought it was the funniest script that I had ever read and I could visualize it on the page. On top of that, I loved the way the filmed pilot turned out! What the hell happened to that???

David: Good question. I don’t know.

Neely: It was brilliant!

David: Thank you.  I was really proud of that one. I thought for sure it was going to go. I have no idea.  I think that they had just signed all these very expensive deals at the time and I guess I was lower on the food chain. They had other priorities. I felt it was political because everyone I knew at the time had the same response – “this thing is really funny.” But it didn’t go.  I really got a taste on that one – it was another high concept that I did for 4 camera and I really got a taste for trying to do outrageous things on a stage. I thought “Domestic Front” would have been another one like that.

Neely: This season, one of the pilots in contention for series pickup is called “No Ordinary Family” about members of a family who develop different super powers. It’s written as a one hour and lacks focus and humor. All I could think about when I was reading it was, “Whatever happened to ‘Manhattan Man’?”

David: Well, at this point in time, I’m just glad to have a show. I spent a lot of time in different development deals, developing pilots I was thrilled about but didn’t get made. Now I’m just interested in getting things made.

Neely: I don’t know what to say. I loved the stuff that didn’t get made. I’m looking forward to seeing the show you did get on the air - your animated show called “Ugly Americans.”

David: “Ugly Americans” is for Comedy Central. It’s a peculiar show about a social worker in New York City helping humans and non-humans assimilate into the country.

 

Neely: Changing focus slightly… Either on this or on some of your other shows, what were you influences? You have a fertile imagination, but even the most fertile imaginations are usually fed by other things.

David: In terms of other shows? TV I was influenced by? Literary? In TV, maybe it’s just fresh in my mind since we’re talking about “Domestic Front,” but I was a big “Get Smart” fan as a kid.  What’s cool is that my father’s name is Leonard Stern, and Leonard Stern was one of the Executive Producers on the show. I used to walk around telling people that that was my dad. They say all young writers are plagiarists and I started with a fake father. Maybe that’s where “Domestic Front” came from.

I also loved “The Andy Griffith Show;” I loved the expansion of the world of that show. I always felt that “The Simpsons” was influenced by “The Andy Griffith Show.” On one it’s Mayberry and on the other it’s Springfield. On “The Andy Griffith Show” they could take a full episode telling me who Floyd the Barber was and I’d be interested.  That’s incredibly rare. Most shows are driven by the power of the lead, and even though Andy would always be involved, the world of Mayberry expanded out so far. You really bought that world. I really believed there was a place called Mayberry. A similar major influence was “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Same reason – there wasn’t a second that I didn’t think I wasn’t in a newsroom, easily allowing me to suspend my disbelief. This is a hard thing to do and takes real discipline or maybe passion to accomplish what you’re trying to say, to sell the authenticity of your world.  And, by the way, going back to “Get Smart,” as funny as it was, I bought that there was C.O.N.T.R.O.L. and C.H.A.O.S. I completely bought the world. And Mel Brooks proved to be the ultimate master of what I’m talking about. In his movies, take “Young Frankenstein,” for instance, he sold it – it wasn’t just Frankenstein gags; he sold the world.

Neely: And “The Producers.” I still believe in the world of “The Producers.” That world is absolutely realistic. It happens all the time; it’s just that in real life it’s not funny.

David: It’s commitment; full commitment to what you’re doing is the key, really taking your world seriously and not selling out for a cheap joke. If it doesn’t fit into that world, then don’t do it. Those little disciplines make all the difference to me as a fan. As soon as you pop that bubble, as soon as you sell out – I’ve done it plenty, so don’t get me wrong – you’ve lost the audience.

Neely: Did you have any mentors in the business?

David: Neal Marlens and Carol Black gave me my start on “The Wonder Years” and they were brilliant brilliant people.  I loved them and love them still. They were fantastic.  I remember that I was 23, had just arrived in town and I read the pilot script and was blown away. So I banged out a spec script as quickly as I could and sent it to them. They responded to it immediately. The pilot hadn’t even been shot yet and that’s how I got my first gig. I was on the show for the first three seasons.

Neely: You know that that breaks all the rules – you’re never supposed to submit a spec for the show you want to work on.

David: I would put a major caveat on that theory. The time to write a spec is immediately when there are not piles of scripts, and make it good … I caught them so early. The pilot hadn’t been shot yet and they had a 6 episode commitment. If you’re already on the air, then millions of people are clamoring to get on your show. But if no one knows who you are and you have a 6 episode commitment, or 13 or 22 - This doesn’t apply to a guy like David Kelley, who’s so prolific it’s insane; he just seems to squirt these things out like water - but for most of us it’s a serious chore. So when they had 6 episodes to come up with, they were thinking “Crap, I need something.” And my script appeared and they thought “Wait a minute. We can actually use this.” They needed help. That would be my major exception to that rule. If you can get on when people actually need your help and you can deliver the goods –that’s another way to get in.

Neely: Let’s talk about reading and writing a bit. Are there any literary figures exerting influence on your work? What do you read for fun?

David: When I get time off from work I sit quietly. Quite frankly, what I really read is news – I just go online these days. I’m not even reading a book, unfortunately; so I spend my time as a news/political junkie flipping around Huffington Post, the Washington Post and other sites. It’s weird, but maybe it’s because I spend so much of my time dancing around in my imagination that I find facts and news and non-fiction to be the most interesting or relieving – it’s the biggest escape, in a strange way.  I like to escape my crazy head with actual facts.

Neely: Going back to “Domestic Front,” how far into the process did this one get?

David: I made a bad deal on that script. I should have been able to predict from the beginning that I wasn’t going to get any traction. It was HIP and they weren’t going to put it on HBO. We went hat in hand to the networks; it just wasn’t the right approach. What I’m really proud of is the response I’ve gotten from it. I was up for a staff job on “Andy Barker, P.I.” for Conaco, Conan’s company, and David Kissinger read it and loved it. I didn’t get the gig, but he did option “Domestic Front” for Conaco. They didn’t do anything with it because it’s that age old dilemma – once a pilot has been through the process, it’s dead.

Neely: Well, that’s why I started the blog. I don’t understand why that is and wish someone, someday, will realize that such waste is crazy.

David: That whole process is insane. This cyclical “out with the old and in with the new” where nobody wants to touch the “old” because it’s somebody else’s discard. It’s just silly and wasteful. The Features side doesn’t do that.  Stuff can kick around and switch around and still get made eventually. But in pilots – once somebody passes, it’s like a leper.

Neely: I’m trying to say, “Hey there’s a lot of really great stuff that’s out there that’s better than any of the crap you’re looking at now. Why aren’t you looking at this stuff again?” I suppose this is part of my quixotic nature, tilting at windmills.

David: Keep tilting. I hope people listen.

Neely: What kind of notes or comments came at you?

David: It was silence. I suppose it’s the ultimate compliment. It felt like people didn’t have anything to say. When I was pitching it, even pitching it to CBS, which, at the time was an incredibly conservative comedy development team, I was killing them in the room; and I walked out of that room and turned to Harvey Myman, my Executive Producer at the time, and said “They’re not going to buy that.” Everybody loved it and nobody wanted to buy it because it didn’t fit into the incredibly narrow comic model that everyone had decided they wanted. I don’t know why people box themselves into corners like this.

Neely: Okay, so we know that no one is willing to revisit, and you had already considered animation, which makes sense since you did, after all, have a long stint on “The Simpsons.”  How about setting this up as a small, inexpensive and hilarious feature.  Have you given that possibility any thought?

David: You want to produce it?  Hey let’s go.

Neely: I wish I had the backers.  But could you see this as a feature?

David: You asked what do I read for pleasure and what I watch for pleasure, but the truth is that movies, for me, are “play” and television is something I’ve worked at. It’s sort of a variation of “I’m officially in the kitchen, so I don’t eat in the restaurant.” I’ve always left Features off to the side. I just enjoy movies – I go and I watch them and love them and am dazzled by them and I don’t understand how people put 2 hour storylines together. It blows my mind a bit. That said I’m now willing to venture into that world. However, and it’s a big however, I just got 14 more scripts picked up for “Ugly Americans.” I just got through my first run and they just piled 14 more on top, which is great news but it also means, “Do I have time to do a feature? Nah, I don’t think so, not right now.”

Neely: So you have considered features. Do you have any feature ideas percolating in your head?

David: I’ve got tons of them and I’ve written a couple. Again, a couple that I’m really pleased and proud of that just didn’t go anywhere. I’d come off “The Wonder Years” and “The Simpsons” and everyone seemed to like what I was doing and they were offering me these great Overall Deals. And I jumped in writing things that I really liked. The truth of the matter is that I jumped into the world of development too early. The sober truth is that everybody always seems to like my stuff just fine, my creativity and imagination, but I never quite had the juice back then to get my stuff made. I’m realizing that now, so I’m really pleased to have a show on the air, (a) because I really like the show and it’s fun and (b) because it was always the missing element that I never paid attention to before. It’ll give me the power, when I actually have the time, to get my features made. When I had the time, nobody seemed remotely interested.

Neely: This brings up an interesting comment by Michael Hanel, who at that time was an executive in Comedy Development at Fox (now he’s partnered with Mindy Schultheis in their own production company, Acme Productions). He said that nothing ruins a good writer faster than going into development too early.

David: Michael was one of the people who helped me develop “Manhattan Man.” And I have to say, I’m hardly ruined.

Neely: Of course not, but you understand the process enough to know that it didn’t just involve writing, it also involved working the system so that you could get those things you loved produced, and, as you pointed out, that was something you didn’t know how to do.

As we’ve noted, you do have an interesting skew on things.  Tell me something about the schizophrenic, “About Face.” How did that come about and what happened to it?

David: That was another blind script that I sold to Fox – Tracy Katsky, an executive at the time, bought it in the room.  I have to say that Sandy Grushow wasn’t thrilled about it, but Tracy was a big fan. I wrote it up, but ultimately, even though she loved it, she didn’t want to go that strange. Of anybody, Fox should go as wild as they can. That’s another one that sits on the sidelines that I’d love to develop as a feature one of these days.

Neely: Let’s talk a bit about you.  What brought you out here in the first place?

David: I’m from Chevy Chase, Maryland, outside of DC and from an early age I was a TV junkie. I think one advantage that I had over other people was that I didn’t come out here to get into entertainment; I came here specifically to be a sitcom writer. I was an English, not a film, major at Ithaca College, but was already writing scripts on my own. My first year out of college I had a handful of specs ready – having written them off the television screen, trying to learn the format. I wrote a “Family Ties,” a “Cheers,” a “Perfect Strangers.” I would have done anything; I was driven. I came out and got a job as a production assistant and on my first day on that job I met a guy named Mike Becker, a still photographer at the time who was good friends with Neal and Carol. He introduced me to them and so it went.  They were coming up with “Wonder Years,” and I wrote a spec based on the as yet unproduced pilot and sold it to them. Like I said, I was lucky in that I always knew what I was going to do – for some reason I just knew that sitcoms were going to be it for me.

Neely: What got you your first agent?

David: “Wonder Years.” Once I made that sale, it was amazing how casual it all was.

Neely: It’s amazing how easy it is to get a job once you have a job.

David: Well that’s it. Neal and Carol asked if I had an agent and I said no, and they asked if I would like theirs. I said sure. That was that.  They were with Leading Artists at the time. I started with Marty Adelstein and moved to Robb Rothman. And then Robb jumped out and formed his own agency and I followed.

Neely: I know that now you’re with CAA, but that you’re still close to Robb.

David: How much do you know about my life??

Neely: I have to keep a few things secret. It is amazing when you start digging, how many people in common you end up having.

David: It’s a small town, isn’t it?

Neely: It’s a very small town.  David, I don’t want to keep you because I know you’re really really busy. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time with me.

Do you work here in LA?

David: I work in Santa Monica, and am living in Ocean Park. I work 5 minutes away from home and that ain’t too bad. I love Ocean Park, I really do. I’m at 3rd and am looking out at the beach right now.

Neely: See, there are still wonderful things about scripts that don’t get made. They still end up paying for wonderful views.

David: You’re right. That’s what I’m saying. In terms of getting a show on the air, I don’t know; I’m not sure I was ever in that much of a rush, anyway. Right now, at this point, I have a show, I’ve got a really strong handle on my craft and I’ve got plenty of dough.  Everything is just fine. And maybe, just maybe, we can circle back and get some of these other things made.

I just love that you love some of my faves. I love these scripts and I hope you have success in convincing the industry to make shows they believe in and not just whatever is hot in November.

Neely: Thank you so much David. This was so much fun for me.

{jcomments on}

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Based on a story by James Ellroy

The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer. – Edward R. Murrow


Early morning.

The sun throws gold light onto deserted South Central Avenue. Faded pink and yellow and white Spanish style houses squat next to empty parking lots and Baptist churches and auto body shops with beaters up on lifts.

Burdette and Lynley's black and white cruises.

Lynley: SLA'll be the only thing in this neighborhood up before noon.

Off Burdette's look,

Lynley: Mostly white outfit.

We pass Mex laborers trudging to work by foot and bicycle, groggy pimps in boat-length rides  heading home after a long night's macking,

Stopped at a light,

Lynley: (incredulous) The fuck...?

Off his look,

Burdette: (adamant) Hell, no.

Lynley: Fuck you. First lead we've got.

Reveal Burdette and Lynley's POV:

A formation of a dozen Black Panthers running Karate drills in an empty parking lot. A line of black kids stretches out the doorway to a run-down storefront.

Lynley gets out, slides his billy-club into his belt-loop, walks toward the building. Burdette burns. Jams the cruiser into park and gets out.

INT. Black Panther Headquarters – Moments later

Burdette and Lynley, being led down a narrow hallway by a steely black man, Cochese Pierce.

They move through the line of kids snaking into the building. At the front of the line, we see that the kids are filing into a makeshift cafeteria.

Cochese: Army fights on its stomach... we give out a hundred breakfasts a day... What don't you see in here?

Burdette taps his canvassing sheet,

Burdette: Brother, all we wanna know is--

Cochese: What you don't see here is a bunch of honkies and bitches in blackface playing revolutionary. When we dismantle the system you trying to maintain... won't hear nothing... won't see it coming... like sundown: one minute shit'll just be dark.

Cochese leads them further into the building,

Burdette: So you ain't seen Cinque, or any SLA--

Cochese: (to Lynley) -- Pig... 'brother' Cinque is of no more concern to us than your presence here, right now.

Lynley: Far as I can tell... only difference between you and the SLA is a continental breakfast. The trio entering a small, bare room outfitted with gymnasium mats and a heavy bag hanging  from the ceiling.

A few Panthers work self-defense moves on the mats. Off in a corner, some Panthers lift weights, jump rope.

Lynley lobs a pointed yawn Cochese's way: he's not impressed.

Burdette: Well... thanks for your time...(to Lynley) Let's roll.

Cochese holds Lynley's stare. Smiles

Burdette: (more insistent) Officer Lynley... let's go.

Cochese: (a nod to Lynley's service revolver) SLA uses M-1's... .45 autos... why the department still issues 38's I'll never know... some people say .45's got a jamming problem.

Cochese pulls a .45 auto from behind his back. Burdette and Lynley's hands go to their sidearms.

Burdette: Easy... don't make a mistake.

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Based on a story by James Ellroy

“You know how you smoke out a sniper? You send a guy out in the open, and you see if he gets shot. They thought that one up at West Point.” – Samuel Fuller


What: It’s 1974 and the LAPD has concentrated its efforts in finding Donald “Cinque” DeFreeze, leader of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Who: The officers of the 77th precinct, incorporating much of South Los Angeles, have been canvassing the neighborhoods in hopes of catching a lead on the hideout of the SLA. Officer Billy Burdette is a rarity, not just in the 77th but also in the LAPD. A well-spoken young black man, Billy is a law school graduate who eventually hopes to parlay his police experience and education into a seat on the city council or even further. His optimism is in direct opposition to the reality of his circumstances, recently made more complicated with the assignment of a new recruit, Chuck Lynley, as his trainee.

Lynley, recently discharged from the Marines, is highly skeptical of his black partner’s polite community relations ways, as he is from the LAPD roust-and-club-into-submission School of Hard Knocks. While Billy was out looking for the rapists of a neighborhood child, Lynley’s less polite approach led him directly to the drugged out rapists, whom he promptly dispatches with an untraceable straight razor. This direct approach has already caught the eye of several leaders in the department.

Franz: This is how it works: you're white, pushing thirty, got an okay collar record from NOHO-

Keefer: -- You take the exam... some friends backing you up...

Franz: ... You're third-grade before Christmas. Fuckin' sport coat and chinos.

Lynley: That's all there is to it?

Franz: Nobody's gonna cry for those boofers you wasted. We caught the case, and it's cold...

Keefer: For as long as we say.

Franz: (a thumb toward Keefer) This geriatric pulls his twenty soon... he's in Catalina, angling for Pike... I'm gonna need a new partner with stones.

Keefer: You wanna ride around with that jig, rousting hypes for the next two years?

Franz: Cream rises to the top... you're Robbery Homicide... we vouch for you.

Franz sticks out his hand... deal?

Lynley smiles, pumps it hard.

Franz: I'm your rabbi... you need anything, you come to me.

Burdette is a cipher to the blue collar Lynley. Burdette comes from a professional family; his father is a successful dentist and his beautiful sister a lawyer. Riding with Burdette is an education in dignity and class, an education that Lynley is not yet prepared to undergo; he is somewhat able to view Burdette as blue in color, but this doesn’t hold for the rest of the neighborhood on their watch.

When Officer Donny Miller is discovered dead, having first been tortured, in the garage of a house that Lynley and Burdette had earlier searched as part of their SLA investigation, the stakes are upped. Danny Miller was known as a sleaze on the take, with his hand in most of the criminal activities of the neighborhood, but he was a cop and the boys in blue close ranks among their own. Department policy – roust the locals.

Burdette and Lynley sit together in the sea of uniforms.

Murcott: You know why we're here. I'm handing it over to Lieutenant Rick Beddoes from RHD. He'll explain what we've got so far.

Murcott retreats.

Lieutenant Rick Beddoes, a tall white man, walks to the lectern. He taps the mike, raises static and speaks.

Beddoes: Miller was the daywatch floater. He always worked alone, and he always drove a Department F-car days, then switched to his civilian wheels at night. His F-car is back in the lot, pristine, and none of Miller's shit is in it. His civilian car's missing, along with all of Miller's canvassing sheets on the SLA.

A Cop raises his hand.

Cop: Have you checked Miller's recent arrests? Old arrests? Guys he sent to the joint?

Beddoes: Miller didn't make many arrests, so I don't buy that angle. Whatever the motive, he was tortured before he was shot. All his fingers and toes were broken.

The muster room rumbles. Beddoes taps the mic.

Beddoes: The SLA or black-guerilla fucks like that are our number one suspects, but we're staying open on our leads. We've got three teams from RHD to handle the black radical angle. Questions?

Burdette: (raising his hand) You thought about a personal angle? Miller was a scrounger and a freak.

The room freezes. Lynley grins. Partner's got balls.

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"The only safe thing is to take a chance." - Mike Nichols

Neely: This segues nicely into the unusual series you created. “Get a Life” is hard to categorize and is truly what anyone would refer to as “out of the box.” Tell me what it was about and what you were aiming for.
David: I became a giant Anglophile particularly because of Monty Python. As a comedy writer who’d studied comedy from the time I was a kid. I watched every comedy TV show or film I could get my hands on and by the time 1973 came around, I’d seen everything. I definitely fell into that Outliers theory of just absorbing 10,000 hours of comedy - probably more like 30,000. I was an old man comedy-wise. I just lived and breathed comedy and then Python came along with that calm opening line "And now for something completely different." I was so there. Python is a show that takes everything you know about comedy and fucks with it. You have to already understand a lot about comedy to get everything they’re on about. That really fascinated me. It had an enormous amount of Dadaism – surreal elements that are accepted in the UK but harder to do over here because you start losing a lot of the audience. In Britain (actually almost everywhere but here) they're comfortable with smaller audiences. Now, to an extent, we are too, with cable, and the large loss of network viewership but in those days, no. So Python hit me in a huge way because I had always used comedy to twist the world to make it livable to me and Python twisted the twist. It really messed with my head which was already weird and dark to begin with.

One of my problems is illustrated by “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Ted Knight had a joke where he’s introducing Georgette, and he would say, “This is my first wife, Georgette.” I thought that was so dark and so funny; it made me laugh so loud. But then if you listen, the laugh from the audience, it's not very big. In other words, that edgy joke cut out a large part of the audience. If you’re looking for pure success and big numbers, you don’t just write that kind of comedy. You can sprinkle in those kinds of lines but if you do an entire show with that tone, your audience will be limited - but, and this is important, much more passionate. Anyway, that's kind of where my head goes and the limited audience of that way of writing is something that took me a while to realize because I always laughed so hard myself at that Ted Knight line that I never heard how few others were laughing at it. You’re just not going to get the entire audience with a joke like that. Python always had a small super-passionate cult following. It really, really blew me away and that’s the direction English TV was going. And that's the way I naturally thought too.

I had a deal with MTM to make a pilot for them after I left “Newhart.” There was a British show that was, in a way, the child of “Monty Python” called “The Young Ones." It was about three or four college kids living together and was very surreal and free form. The furniture talked, there were multiple dimensions; they could be brutally injured at times and then miraculously heal like a cartoon character would. That really interested me so I had MTM buy the rights to remake “The Young Ones” in America. I brought over Nigel Planer, who was a big star over there and I thought could translate very well over here playing the same role. I had the great Jackie Earl Haley playing another role, and I wanted Chris Elliot to play another part in the pilot. I’d been a big fan of Chris’s from Letterman. We met and really hit it off. We had great chemistry and I adored him but I couldn’t talk him into being in the show where he would have been one of trio. I think he had it in his head to be in a show that would just star him. So I went on and did the pilot with those surreal elements where the main characters are literally violently trying to kill each other during most of the episode.

It, of course, tested “through the floor.” The kind of questions they ask in research testing would never let a show like that get on the air (Neely laughs, of course). Terrible terrible shows that no one would watch get on because there’s nothing offensive in them. A show where Robert Mitchum played a homeless man who lived in an orphanage run by nuns tested great. “Do you dislike the poor homeless man?” “No!” “Do you dislike the God-chosen nuns?” “No!” “Do you dislike the poor sweet orphans?” “No!” So that pilot got incredibly high testing numbers but then no one with a functioning brain would ever actually watch such a thing. That’s why testing is so hilariously bizarre. The fact is, research clearly shows that research doesn't work. Though I will say that movie testing actually can and does work because you're watching people watching your movie in the exact same situation as in the real marketplace and then you can recut your film to make it work better and better. Woody Allen would screen his films many times. Monty Python's "Holy Grail" had around 30 test screenings. The secret is to use the info you obtain wisely but that's a whole other subject.

Anyway, by then Chris and I had become friends and Chris wanted to do his own show and he asked me to do it with him. He said that he wanted to do Dennis the Menace grown up, still living at home. Literally, Dennis the Menace. I said we couldn't do Dennis the Menace because they wouldn't give us the rights to it, especially from that kind of dark point of view where Dennis the Menace had been a failure to launch, an adult living at home. They would never let us present such a borderline psychotic, loser future for one of America's most beloved characters. But there was no reason it had to be Dennis the Menace. He would just be kind of a guy who’s never moved out of the house and still has a paper route, just like Dennis the Menace, and instead of the old Mr. Wilson neighbor, he had his best friend who’s married and has kids and is tied down while he's still free, living with his parents, still living like a kid. And that became “Get a Life.” I had done “The Young Ones” pilot at Fox and still had a very good relationship with them, so we sold the idea to them even though they were a bit worried and reluctant. Chris, Adam Resnick and I wrote the pilot. And once we got it on the air, we pretty quickly "evolved" it into a show about a borderline psychotic guy who had a somewhat tenuous grip on reality. And that fit perfectly with a show that had a tenuous grip on reality or as I like to call it - a flexible reality.

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"When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers." - Oscar Wilde

Neely: Let's go back to some of your earlier shows. the first credit I found was for "Three's company." How did that come about?

David: That was a big break through for me. It took me four years to break into the business. It wasn't that I was improving as a writer during that time either. t was really a matter of four years of trying to get the right combination of access. Sneaking into producers’ houses or suddenly popping up in the back seats of their cars was not getting the results I hoped for. Actually, it was during that four years that I became a standup. It was easier to earn money as a standup than it was to get a script read.

It's actually a funny story, not funny ha ha but funny strange, as to how I finally broke in. My cousin Eddie Solomon knew a guy who did the computer programming for the Twentieth Century Fox accounting department – which, of course, is the white-hot center of show business. (Neely chuckles knowingly). But he knew an actual living breathing comedy writer named George Tricker. George, who could not be a nicer, more talented wonderful guy, read my early stuff and recognized something in it. He became a mentor to me as I was writing my first spec scripts.

He worked on a show called “The Ropers” which was a spin-off of “Three’s Company,” so to get their attention, I wrote a spec “Ropers.” The guy running “The Ropers” read it and didn’t like it, but somehow it got into the hands of the guy above him, Bernie West. Bernie West was one of the creators of the American version of “Three’s Company,” along with Mickey Ross and Don Nicholl. Don had passed a way but Mickey and Bernie were still there and Bernie loved my script, leading the way for me to come into pitch to “Three’s Company.” I pitched for two or three years, not knowing that I was pitching at what I would call the masturbatory level of the business. In other words, I was pitching to very very lovely people who didn't have the power to buy a story from me. I later asked, I probably even asked at the time, because they got like 70 pitches a year, “How many pitches have you actually bought?" And the answer was zero. Any time you met with them you were just jerking off. (laughing) 

I was a very shy non pushy guy – I thought that asking someone every 6 months if they had had a chance to read my script was being obnoxious - but I knew that I had to move up from these story editors Shelley Zellman and Ellen Guylass who were these talented, nice, encouraging women comedy writers who eventually became my very good friends. I needed to pitch at the producer level which was Martin Rips and Joseph Stravinsky. And when I finally got to pitch at that level, they instantly bought a story from me. I got to write the script as a freelance. After I handed in the script, I drove straight to the Sequoia National Forest to depressurize. I checked in on a pay phone (back then that was your only choice) and my agent said “You’re on staff at 'Three’s Company.’” 

But I really didn’t want to be on staff. I was aiming for “Cheers.” I was certainly happy to have gotten my first assignment; it was huge and I loved the people on "Three's Company" but the style of that show wasn’t exactly my cup of tea – I much preferred the MTM-style character-driven comedy. But my agent packaged the show and suddenly I was on staff. I really wasn’t in a position to turn it down, having 17 children and all. It actually turned out to be quite fortuitous because the stuff I learned there has served me endlessly through my career.

The characters on “Three’s Company” could not say anything clever; they were not smart characters so the humor was not verbal. The comedy almost completely rose from the structure - classic French farce - which is deceivingly difficult to write. It appears easy but it’s actually very difficult to structure one of those things properly so that all the laughs start to organically roll on top of each other. And one of the reasons they were happy to have me was that they had trouble finding writers who had the discipline to do that. So not only was I very lucky to get that job but also to get that training because it really forced you to think pure structure. When I got to write more character-oriented comedy, I was already a bit ahead of the game because I'd already learned how to do a lot of underlying structure.You’ve trained that muscle.

Neely: I do remember a conversation we had at one point where you mentioned that even though you ended up learning so much on “Three’s Company,” you were quite upset that your agent had essentially sold you down the river because you were hoping for a freelance (and maybe a pickup) on "Cheers."

David: Yes, that’s right. I had written that “Ropers” script specifically because George Tricker had an "in” with that group. But my pride and joy was a spec “Taxi” that I had written and because it was character comedy it was turned down all over town. Lots and lots of agents read it but didn't understand it. Character-based humor is just not as obvious. Eventually though, it got into the hands of the wonderful Ken Levine and David Isaacs. David’s at USC now isn’t he?

Neely: Yes he is He’s a lynch pin in their television comedy writing program. Ken writes one of the best blogs out there. (http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/)

David:  Fantastic guys. They were then on "Cheers" and read my script and they liked it. At that time, “Cheers” was the second lowest rated show on TV. It was the first season and I knew it was pure genius. I wanted desperately to be on that show. They told me they would give me one of the back nine episodes if they got picked up. So I was waiting for that to come through. I asked my agent, the one who packaged “Three’s Company,” “If I go on ‘Three’s Company,’ will this mess up the ‘Cheers’ thing?” “No, absolutely not. We’ll still pursue the ‘Cheers’ thing.”

I was on “Three’s Company” for a while, and, as I said before, I didn't like to bother people, but I hadn’t heard anything from the folks at "Cheers" for about 6 months. I eventually called David and Ken and asked what was happening because I knew they had been picked up. They said that my agent made it clear that it wasn’t going to happen with me. I was very disappointed. To my agent “Three’s Company” was a top show, often number two or three in the ratings, sometimes number one, and he couldn’t see why I would want to go on the lowest rated comedy on television. He thought I was crazy; he didn’t see a difference in quality, literally.

I left that agent because of that and found the agent that I have to this day, Robb Rothman. Robb's the most amazing guy and he was completely instrumental in getting me onto the kind of show that I wanted. He loved my “Taxi” script and got me onto an  MTM character- oriented show, the kind of show I grew up worshipping, and that was “Newhart,” the one in Vermont. Robb had a relationship with the Executive Producer Dan Wilcox, and Dan very graciously decided to give me the benefit of a doubt and had me write a “Newhart” script. I say benefit of the doubt because I was coming off “Three’s Company" and even though it was a very difficult show to write, it was looked down upon by the character comedy shows.

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"Union Rule 26: Every employee must win 'Worker of the Week' at least once, regardless of gross incompetence, obesity or rank odor." – Homer Simpson

It doesn’t take much to love David Mirkin.  Just look at his credits and you’ll realize that you’ve loved him for years on “Three’s Company,” “Newhart,” and “The Simpsons,” as well as his own iconic series “Get a Life,” to name just a few. David is also a popular director in both features and television, making him more than a triple threat.

I was lucky enough to have David lecture to a class I taught called “The Entertainment Industry Seminar” and he was a major hit because his practical advice was encased in the humorous delivery that is his trademark.

Conversation with a Writer I Love:

Neely: David, I’m so glad you agreed to talk to me.

For a while there, we kept bumping into one another – like at the TEDX conference.  Have you been to any of the others?

David: I have not. Savannah used to go those, but once they got really big and really crowded, it became less of an interest of ours. I watch the videos online which is a good, easy, hermity way to do that.

Neely: I think TED is a very interesting concept – sort of like an “after school special” for grown-ups, but I always end up with a headache.

David: That’s why the videos are so good. If someone strikes me as particularly brilliant and talented, I can immediately close it down and pretend they don’t exist.

Neely: Let’s start in the present.  I noticed that you have several feature projects in development. Can you talk about any of them?

David: I can’t talk too much about them for various reasons, but I am very excited about the Richard Branson biopic “Losing My Virginity.”  It’s a great combination of an action film, because there are a lot of fantastic, dangerous balloon and boat crashes mixed in with a really fascinating story about how to make a billion dollars without being a big jerk (both laugh). It’s a story about “compassionate capitalism” which in some ways is the antithesis of the “Social Network” where the startup involved a lot of intrigue and dirty tricks. Richard started a magazine when he was 15 or 16. I’ve interviewed people he was in business with at that age and through his early career and he’s still friendly with all of them. So he’s been able to move forward, be very successful and still have people speak well of him. I think it’s a good flip side to the “Social Network” showing you can make a billion dollars without leaving a trail of dead bodies behind you.

Neely: How did you get attached to that film?

David: By murdering the guy who was originally attached. You know the whole compassionate capitalism thing is a little late for me but for the young people… Actually the producers sent me a copy of his book Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way. I read it, really liked it and had a very cool, visual kinetic take on it. I then met with Richard and we really hit it off; he really loved the take too. And we went from there.

Neely: I notice on a lot of the other features you have in development right now that you’re also going to direct them. Are you going to direct this one?

David: Yeah. I’m attached as a writer/director on this.

Neely: Would you say that your present focus is more on directing or are you still firmly planted in the writing world?

David: I’ll always be a writer first. It all really starts with the writing and the writing has to move me or be something I can rewrite and put into a voice I’m comfortable with. If the writing is not good then nothing that comes after it can be good. Doesn’t matter how brilliant the actor or director. That said, once you get the script right, you want to protect it. So in some ways, directing is just a means of protecting the writing. That’s why I started directing the “Newhart” scripts I wrote, directed most episodes of “Get a Life” and “The Edge” and directed the actors on every “Simpsons” episode I executive produced. Being the head writer on those shows was not enough; you had to see the material through its execution – especially the weirder stuff. You had to be right there to make sure every sick idea didn’t lose any disturbing nuance.

Neely: You come by that philosophy naturally and you have great predecessors in terms of that feeling, Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges, foremost among them. I loved how writer/director Michel Hazanavicius invoked the name of his hero in his Oscar acceptance speech: “Billy Wilder. Billy Wilder. Billy Wilder.”

David: That’s right. It all started back then and those are the heroes.

Woody Allen has been one of my heroes pretty much since childhood and here he is, still getting winning Academy Awards well into his 70s! He’s certainly given me enormous unrealistic hopes for my own career.

Neely: Well that’s an excellent segue because I think I would be completely remiss if we didn’t start our conversation with “The Simpsons.” Your comparison of Woody Allen as a childhood idol who’s still active certainly resonates. My son, who’s an adult now, grew up with “The Simpsons.” It may not be the same as Woody Allen but it’s something that has crossed many generations.

David: It has. One of the ways we would get the older guest stars on “The Simpsons” is they wanted to seem cool to their children. But we recently recorded Lady Gaga and she was the first to say that one of the reasons she did our show was to impress her father! That was a bit depressing and also crushed my plans to date her.

But talking about influences, let’s go back a bit. The first writing that really blew me away when I was a child was on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” I recognized that as something smarter than anything else on television at the time. And it’s held up in (television) history as something that was absolutely brilliant. Suddenly something incredibly smart was speaking to me and that led to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” which was another thing that completely blew me away.

And that was due to Jim Brooks, writing with Alan Burns at the time. I followed Jim’s career as he went on to “Taxi,” which was another brilliant series I studied very seriously when I was trying to learn to write. And obviously “The Simpsons.” The whole reason “The Simpsons” exists and has the freedom that it does is thanks to Jim Brooks. He’s definitely a spiritual father to me.

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"Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices - just recognize them." - Edward R. Murrow

What: The border patrol has its hands full with illegal immigration, going up against not only a well organized network of coyotes but also the vigilante Minutemen who interfere with their work. Further, there’s an upcoming gubernatorial race in Texas and the leading candidate is vehemently xenophobic.

Who: Preston Clark is the leading gubernatorial candidate with his eyes on an even larger prize. Popular with his party and the state’s business interests, he is considerably less so with his family: bored wife Sylvia and defiant teenage daughter Bethany. Sylvia is awakened from her boredom when she discovers that the household maid, Mariella, had been horribly abused in El Salvador and escaped to this country illegally – something that would be a complication for the candidate if Sylvia were to reveal this information; she won’t.

In forced attendance at a political fundraiser, Sylvia and Bethany listen as

Preston, at the podium, looks out at $10,000 dollar a plate diners. The Crowd adores him. Too bad his family doesn’t.

Preston: Our borders are ignored, our laws broken. Illegal immigrants cross into Texas at a rate of hundreds a week. They take American jobs, they pay no taxes, there is no screening process -- honest men enter along with felons. We have lost control. If elected Governor, I vow, I will end this invasion!

The crowd bursts into applause. Preston pauses triumphantly, then continues like a preacher in the pulpit.

Preston: I will crack down on illegals already here...

Seated to his right, Sylvia has a smile plastered across her face to mask her foul mood. She’s used to faking it, in and out of bed.

Preston: I will destroy the flourishing underground which helps these people violate our laws...

Beside her, Bethany, grim faced, scans the room. She spots the exit. Bethany leans over to her mother.

Bethany: (whispering) I have to pee.

Bethany slips out. Preston sees her go, but without missing a beat, continues his speech.

Preston: Stopping illegal immigration into this great state of Texas will be my number one priority!

Booming applause. Off on Preston as he savors the adulation.

In a small Mexican village, Fernando Lopez, 23, is initiating his young brother Luis, 16, into the export business – the delivery of paying chattel to their American “buyers” on the other side of the border. Things haven’t started well as their American compadre and driver, Raymond the moronic surfer dude is late in arriving. With a full load, Raymond initiates a “drain” break at the halfway point. Raymond’s idea of a break doesn’t just involve urinary relief, but also includes a sampling of the goods in the enclosed trailer.

Raymond grabs the girl he accosted earlier and pulls her from the trailer. Forcing her to her knees, he unzips. As Fernando and Luis approach from behind,

Fernando: What the fuck you doing?

Raymond: You want seconds?

Luis: Stop him!

Fernando: He’s right. Don’t mess with the cargo. We gotta get going!

Raymond: When she’s done sucking my dick.

Fernando slaps Raymond in the face.

Fernando: I’ll cut your dick off, you don’t get back in the truck right now.

Fernando starts back towards the cab. Raymond flips him around, sucker punches him.

Raymond: It’s my truck, my call, asshole. I’m tired of taking orders from you.

They struggle on the ground, Luis and the woman watching.

Fernando: Stupid fuck, you couldn’t put a run together without me! Three years, you still can’t even speak Spanish.

Raymond pins Fernando to the ground, picks up a large rock, menacing it over his head.

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“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life. “ – Albert Camus


What: Richard Miles left for work on Sept. 11, 2001 and returned home exactly 8 years later to the day.

Who: Richard Miles is puzzled to see the name “Miles-Barnes” on the mailbox next to his driveway, but he’s even more surprised by the hysteria that greets him when he walks in the living room and sees his wife Cheryl, daughter Shannon, and son Michael.  Richard, an accountant with the firm of Gorman & Shaw, housed on the eightieth floor of the World Trade Center, was presumed dead on September 11, 2001; none of the 23 employees on that floor survived the terrorist attack.  Yet, despite it all, there stands Richard staring at his haggard wife, his unrecognizable daughter, and his now non-verbal son.  Much has changed in his absence. Cheryl is remarried to a local firefighter, Tom Barnes; Shannon, now 17, tattooed and pierced, has become a self destructive promiscuous denizen of the night; and Michael, 13, rarely speaks and has only a tenuous hold on reality. Everyone has aged but Richard who, eerily, has no gray hair, no wrinkles and is wearing the same suit he wore the day he left the house 8 years ago.

Everyone is suspicious of Richard, not the least of who are the police, convinced somehow of nefarious motives on the part of Richard; but an interview with a psychiatrist seems to indicate that Richard has no ulterior motives. The psychiatrist believes that with time and therapy, Richard will be able to reveal what has happened to him; Richard, who should be rent with anxiety, has a coolly calming influence on the psychiatrist, helping him to unburden and become more at ease with his own surroundings and anxieties.

Dr. Stern: So what do you remember about two-thousand one?

Richard thinks, looks out the window.

His POV – A gas station, where the posted price for a gallon of economy unleaded is $4.05.

Richard: I remember that gas was a dollar seventy-one a gallon. (flashes a weak smile) That the Yankees were the defending World Series champs, having beaten the Mets in the Subway Series in two-thousand. Derek Jeter was the series MVP. Was looking forward to a repeat in two-thousand one.

Dr. Stern: Yanks lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in seven games.

Richard: Arizona? You kidding me?

Dr. Stern: Wouldn’t kid about a thing like that. What else?

Richard: (emotions rise as he looks into his memories) I remember that Shannon had joined the Girl Scouts. She was nervous about it for some reason. And that Michael was in kindergarten and having a difficult time with his multiplication tables. (shakes his head) He didn’t like math. And his dad was an accountant. (smile fades) And I remember Cheryl and I were having problems. More than usual. Had been for a while. Money was tight. She’d started drinking.

Dr. Stern: In some ways you’re lucky, you know – I mean you’re not, you’ve lost so much. But the pain from that day, eight years ago, was and remains so great. It affected so many. Still does. The world was changed. We were changed. All of us. And surely not for the better.

Dr. Stern seems to wilt a little with those words.

Richard now observes Dr. Stern. We notice a subtle shift in Richard’s expression: calm, compassion, and a certain control.

Richard: You counsel victims, relatives of victims. You’re a grief counselor. To this very day.

Dr. Stern: (how did he know that?) Yes, I am.

Richard: You’ve absorbed all their anguish, pain and anger. It’s there within you like a tumor. And you’ve never been able to let it go.

And with that, Richard comforts the doctor whose role was to comfort him.

Richard: …But I do know this. That you’ve been trying desperately to hold these people’s lives together. At the expense of your own. But you can’t. You can’t save everybody. Some things are just meant to fall apart. You do your best. Then you have to let go. (beat) So you can grieve. Because you never have.

In some other worldly way, Richard is able to absorb Dr. Stern’s pain and free him, much like he will do with others around him, lifting the weight holding them down – Cheryl, a local firefighter who lost his brother in Afghanistan, even Shannon who he rescues from an assault.

No Meaner Place: To some extent, Widenmann has created a Sci Fi/Spiritual hybrid. Unlike the character in “The Return of Martin Guerre” (or its American remake “Sommersby”), this is not a case of an imposter reclaiming a life he left long ago. Richard is the living breathing embodiment of what was lost – both the good and bad that he represented in his former life, and the possible redemption in the future – the good that he can do in his new life. Simplistically, I suppose, this is “Touched by an Angel Who Wasn’t an Angel then but Is Now.” Not a huge fan (well not even a small fan) of the spiritual genre, I am especially intrigued by the Sci Fi elements (and who knew I would be drawn to that genre!).  It also seems to be a riff on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” because he must be a “pod” because the real body died 8 years ago.  “Back” functions on several different levels, most involving the seeking, attaining or giving of redemption.

Widenmann’s strength is certainly in creating credible characters of great depth out of an incredible premise and allowing the audience to travel there with him.  “Back” also has the makings of an interesting Greek Tragedy, complete with the neighborhood Greek chorus.

Various Neighbors in the crowd react to the sight of him with an unexpected air of contempt:

Neighbor #1: Is it really him?

Neighbor #2: Seeing is believing.

Neighbor #1: I thought he was dead.

Neighbor #3: Jesus, eight years…

Neighbor #4: To the day.

Neighbor #3: Where’s he been?

Neighbor #1: Musta been a scam. That’d be like Richard.

Neighbor #2: Yeah. Never liked that guy.

Neighbor #1: Who did?

Neighbor #2: Poor Cheryl.

Neighbor #3: God, it looks just like him.

Neighbor #4: Because it is him.

They’ve told us everything we need to know about who Richard was – no less, no more.

Life Lessons for Writers:  “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” –   Norman Cousins.


Conversation with the Writer

Neely: Why this story? Why that date?

Dean: I actually dreamt this whole thing. I dream a lot of stories but this one came to me over a couple of nights and it didn’t occur anytime near 9/11. I just couldn’t get it out of my head so I had to write it. I started at first to outline it, but after about a page and a half I realized that I just had to write it. Four days later I had a script. I put it down for a few days, which is what I always do in order to try to be objective and get some perspective on what I’ve written; I corrected some typos, but it really didn’t change until it went out.

I wasn’t sure what I had until others started reading it. My agents were blown away and people were moved by it in important ways. This was about faith but not about religion. I didn’t see it fitting into any kind of genre. It was about hope, healing and second chances. Maybe these were things that were resonating in my life at the time; they seemed to be to be the thematic backbone of the story.

Neely: Any literary or filmic influences on this idea?

Dean: Not really. I watch lots of movies, see a lot of TV and I read all the time. This was just one of those original things. I didn’t follow any rules. I listened to my imagination and I trusted it.

Neely: Written from pitch or on spec?

Dean: Well, as I mentioned before, I just wrote it; so, yes, it was written on spec. I write all the time. I started doing this later in life so I just write and write and write. I wrote 5 spec pilots during the strike.

Neely: I know that CBS picked up this pilot to production and then…

Dean: CBS was the first place I took it. I pitched it before showing them the script and they loved the pitch and bought it right away. I didn’t have the chance to take it any place else. My experience with them was great. I was involved in everything from casting to working with the director. Our director was Mark Pellington, a features guy, and he really got the material; he was a great partner.

We were going to film this in New York and Toronto and it even got weirder when we were out scouting locations and I saw some of the things that had been in my dreams. In the casting process, so many of the people who came in to read had had 9/11 stories of their own, which made me feel this was an important mission we were on. The finished pilot was just beautiful – beautiful and emotional. It was CBS’s highest testing pilot. The Friday before decisions were to be made, I was told to relax and not worry. Then Monday came and went and it wasn’t picked up. CBS picked up “NCIS-Los Angeles” and “Miami Trauma” and a couple of other standard procedurals/medical shows.  All they would say about not picking us up was “things happen.”

Neely: What kind of notes did you get from the network?  Any speculation on why it didn’t go?  Any foreseen or unforeseen difficulties during the shoot?

Dean: The network notes were great; they really left me alone with my vision knowing that I didn’t want to go anywhere near “Touched by an Angel.” The studio producing the pilot was another story. There seemed to be a slight disconnect between the studio and the network and their notes often contradicted one another.

Almost all our unforeseen difficulties related to the weather. We were trying to make it look like a lovely warm Fall day and it was cold and stormy a lot of the time in Toronto and New York where we were filming.

Neely: What direction would you have taken this? As I mentioned earlier, I’m not big (or even little) on spiritual/religious shows, although I’m considered the religious fanatic in my family because I’m Agnostic (not much of a believer in anything other than hedging my bets). It would have been very easy to fall into that “Touched by an Angel” trap.

Dean: First and foremost, it had to be real. The trauma had to be honest – the emotions had to be raw. There were mythologies involved, as well as the coming to grips with Richard’s awakening to a new, radically altered post-9-11 world, and rebuilding relations with his family. It’s about people who have secrets and have guilt and the terrible things that prevent them from living their lives. Richard was going to heal and he was going to intersect with people who had lost people. These were going to be stories wrapped around powerful, relatable emotions.

While we were casting the part of Tom Barnes, Cheryl’s new husband, a firefighter, our New York casting director, Rosalie Joseph told me her 9/11 story. She lives in Manhattan, near Battery Park, and had been saved by someone who had pushed her onto a boat that morning; when she looked up, no one was there. After that experience she became a grief counselor, which she continues to be up to this day. When she read the script, she had a dream about the Dr. Stern scene and woke up crying; prior to that she had never cried or released her own anguish. That was a pretty validating thing for me.

The character of Richard will give to others what he himself is seeking. They will all deal with the trauma of the time.

Neely: I can usually figure out a way to repurpose material but I can only envision this as television.  Can you think of a way that this could turn into a feature with a satisfactory resolution at the end of two hours? The only thing that comes to mind is the framework used by Rogers and Hammerstein in “Carousel” where the dead father, Billy Bigelow, comes back to make sure his daughter takes the right path, the one he didn’t follow, and then he can finally rest.

Dean: Absolutely. I just finished the draft of the feature a week ago. In my original dream I actually dreamt the last episode (it’s a very powerful ending). Richard makes a difference in the lives of those he loves and he finds peace. There are definitely parallels with “Carousel,” especially with Richard’s daughter. At the end of the day, he makes a difference.

Neely: I was interested to see that your television credits have all been on procedurals – something that I wouldn’t think was a very good fit for you.  How did you adjust what I see to be a very character-oriented style to a show like “Bones” or “CSI Miami”?

Dean: Most of the shows on the air are procedurals and you need to get experience where you can. Anne Donahue took me on as her character guy on “CSI-Miami” and taught me how to produce, how to be a showrunner. The experience was invaluable.

Neely: It would appear that you lean toward the supernatural when you write. Who are your favorite writers in any genre and what influence have they had on your own writing?

Dean: Supernatural? Well I suppose to a degree. I like a lot of stuff, including Sci/Fi; I especially loved to read it as a kid. It’s certainly some place my mind likes to wander.

Writers? I love novelists. I read a book a week; I love reading. It’s how I turn off my day, by reading someone else’s story. For the most part, my favorite authors fall into the popular category of crime fiction; guys like James Lee Burke, Martin Cruz Smith, Ian Rankin, and Michael Connelly. All their characters have a wounded nobility. I think my favorite book of all time is Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, but overall, James Lee Burke is my favorite author.

Neely: As I just mentioned, you’ve written other things within the Sci Fi genre, including a feature that has been in development for several years.  Has there been any forward movement on the film?

Dean: That would be “Point Thunder” and it’s still being worked on. It’s actually been a casualty of both the writer’s strike and the tsunami in Thailand. Al Ruddy was on board to produce; he was going to do it after he finished “Million Dollar Baby.” We had $65 million in financing in place; an A-list actress on board; and an A-list director who was just finishing up a film in Hong Kong. I even went to Hong Kong to work with the director on the screenplay. But our financier was in Thailand and died in the tsunami – and so did our $65 million. Such are the fates in Hollywood. When the money disappeared, so did the actor and director. Momentum was lost and now there’s a different producer. Other paws have touched the script and I hear that it might be close – but who knows?

Neely: What’s it about?

Dean: “Point Thunder” is a Sci/Fi underwater adventure.

Neely: What brought you out to Los Angeles and started you on this path?

Dean: I came out “chasing the dream.” This is my fourth career. I started in technical sales and ran a technical sales company. Then I was a small business turn-around consultant; and then a partner in a successful advertising agency – all in Boston.

I was always creative – drawing, painting, writing stories. Practical reality just definitely got in the way. Any dreams I had about Hollywood seemed like interplanetary travel. I thought the ad agency would scratch my creative itch, but it didn’t. The itch wouldn’t go away. I then thought animation would be a way to package all my skills, so I created an animated TV show in my studio at night. I did some research and sent it off to the 10 agencies in LA that seemed to represent this medium and 8 of them responded right away. I spoke with all of them and I really liked two of them. I flew out and put myself up in Beverly Hills, all on my own dime, and met with the two agencies and basically said – whoever got me the most productive meetings then we’d do business together. One of the agencies got me 8 appointments, so I extended my stay. The meetings were great. I flew back and realized I couldn’t do this long distance. I exercised my buy/sell in the agency, told my fiancée we were moving, sold my 250 year old house (that I’d restored myself), stored my sports car and furniture, resigned from the country club and drove across the country and started over.

The animated series got optioned but didn’t go anywhere; and in short order I optioned four more animated series. But I wasn’t finding Saturday morning programming to be very satisfying so I quit.  I had a feature idea and wrote it. Then I bought the “Hollywood Creative Directory” and started calling and writing letters to everyone; when I got to the “T’s”, Triumph Pictures optioned it. It didn’t ultimately get produced, but they hired me to do treatments and eventually to run development for them. I did that for about a year and a half during the day and then at night I wrote my own stuff.

I’d made enough contacts in the feature world to get some feature re-write work. I didn’t have an agent but I knew lots of producers. I still had lots of TV ideas and I was able to get a meeting at Regency Television where they told me I could have 20 minutes to pitch to them; two hours later they told me I was the real deal and they got me an agent. Not too long after that I landed a job on an NBC show called “Hawaii.”

Neely: And the fiancée?

Dean: I suppose you could say she was collateral damage. She never really adjusted and kept trying to get me to quit and go back to the life we had in Boston and the lovely house we shared on the seacoast of New Hampshire. Eventually she went back to her old life.

Neely: What do you see as your strengths as a writer?  Weaknesses and what you need to do to improve them?

Dean: I think my biggest strength is my work ethic. I love to write, and because I have some real life experience behind me, I get up everyday and attack it. I work fast and have a prolific imagination. As to weaknesses, I’m less than tolerant of the eccentricities that are inherent in this business than I should be. I know you have to put up with it, so I’m trying. You know a lot of money and power is put into people’s hands to run a small company, and that’s what a TV show is – a small company. Many of the people running them have no management experience whatsoever and this can cause inefficiencies and unnecessary problems. I hope someday I get a chance to do it because I hope to do it somewhat differently and, I hope, a bit better.

Neely: I noticed that you weren’t staffed this past season. What are you looking for this staffing season?

Dean: I’m hoping to staff on a cable show so that I’ll also be able to develop my own stuff. This is something the broadcast networks won’t let you do. That’s my dream of dreams right now.

Neely: Are you in the process of developing any other pilots or anything you can tell us about?  At what stage are they?

Dean: I’ve got a couple of other features I’m working on now; and I’m working on a couple of other TV ideas. I have a couple of script deals – one with Chernin Entertainment for Fox, and one with Berman/Braun for NBC. My agents are trying to get me to do some more traditional things. They want me to develop my own show. I have a number of real cool ideas for this season. Paradigm, my agents, have been great for me.

Neely: I’ll be interested in seeing what happens next for you.

My new article for Baseline Research just posted at http://www.blssresearch.com/research-wrap?detail/C7/more_stars_than_there_are_in_the_heavens

{jcomments on}

Given a choice between charging elephants and development season, I'll still choose No Meaner Place.


What if the Buddies are girls?

What: An upscale neighborhood is being systematically robbed; the disappearance of an illegal maid threatens to upend the campaign of a local politician; and a “June Cleaver” soccer mom has too much time on her hands.

Who: Brooke Benning, the perfect suburban mom we all wanted as kids and hate as adults, was running her own one-woman neighborhood watch even before her neighbors were being robbed blind in a series of daring daylight robberies.  Curious, some would say nosey, by nature, Brooke takes a walk each evening, strolling the neighborhood, a habit her husband calls spying.

Ed: …you’re one step from turning into Mrs. Kravitz from "Bewitched".

Brooke: To be fair to Mrs. Kravitz, there was a witch next door.  And Darrin did turn into a monkey.

This particular evening she spies a beat up Volvo that doesn’t belong in the area.  Taking things into her own hands she harasses its inhabitants – Dana, a mom, and her two kids, Jack and Molly.  Not only does Brooke force them to leave but she also reports the license to the police.  Imagine her chagrin the next day at the local elementary school when Dana, a fellow mother at the school, confronts her.  Dana, an ex-cop whose husband is in jail for fraud, is now a private investigator and Brooke had interrupted her stake-out, her livelihood.  Furthermore, because Brooke had reported Dana’s car, Dana is no longer able to enter the neighborhood and finish her job.

Brooke: You were on a job?  Who were you watching?

Dana: (showing her card) See the “private” in “private investigator?” That stands for “private.”

At this point, both worlds collide as Dana’s son runs up to her and reminds her that she forgot to make him a lunch.

Brooke: Here – I made an extra lunch, he can have that.

Dana: …What do you mean, you made an “extra” lunch?  Who packs a spare lunch, that doesn’t even make sense.

Very remorseful, and extremely intrigued, Brooke offers to lend her the family van and takes care of Dana’s children while she works.  Unable to resist the call of the gumshoe, Brooke visits Dana on her stakeout (bringing a plate of dinner and calling attention to herself yet again).

Brooke: Okay, you’re watching the meeting, so whoever you’re sitting on must be inside, am I right?  I bet I can guess.  Is it Daniel Haven?  Because I always thought there was something funny about how he suddenly “came into” the money to put in that pool.

Dana: I’m sorry, did you say “sitting on?”

Brooke: I know the lingo.  So who’s the mark?

Dana: (laughs; tough talk) The mark? No can do, sister – I rat out the mark, they’ll lam it outta here toot suite.

Brooke: (embarrassed) Never mind. (They sit in silence, as Dana eats.  Beat.)  Okay, I’m already bored.  How do you do this?  And where do you go to the bathroom?

If Oscar and Felix of “The Odd Couple” were women, they would be Brooke and Dana, although unlike Felix, and potentially more annoying, Brooke is preternaturally perky; but even though we all hate perky, it’s impossible not to like Brooke.

Dana: Oh, god, don’t tell me – you’re one of those families that eat around the table every night.

Brooke: Yes, we are.  I think a family should all talk to one another at dinner.

Dana: Then how do you hear the TV?

Brooke soon finds a new case for Dana, one which Dana, when she sees the $2,000 retainer, is unable to refuse.  Dana, grateful, falls into that syrupy trap of “be careful what you wish for.”  Enormously pleased with herself, Brooke soon insinuates herself into the case and Dana’s life.

No Meaner Place: Again, this wonderful script was produced as a pilot…over and out.  I have no idea what happened, but whatever it was, it wasn’t the writing.  Crisp, funny, with clearly defined and visualized characters (Shelly Long and Bette Midler played similar characters to perfection in “Outrageous Fortune” in 1987); a male-dominated genre written perfectly with originality for women with the potential for endless stories told humorously.  For any woman who has ever had to find her fulfillment as a suburban soccer mom, this is Walter Middy-land with that sexy bit of danger.  To a certain extent, each of us wants the potential excitement of Dana’s life and some (god knows not all) the perfection of Brooke.  There are those of you out there (you know who you are) who always brought extra orange sections to the games in case, god forbid, that week’s soccer mom brought apple slices instead.

Todd is skilled at understanding the vulnerabilities and traps into which middle class women often find themselves.  He has always written interesting female characters, most recently on “Samantha Who?” and “Ugly Betty;” as well as another unproduced pilot entitled “Robin’s Nest.”

I could care less if a network or studio stays ahead of the curve or behind it.  It’s useless to anticipate what the audience will want.  Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue (that would have to be on cable), but do it well and let the audience decide.  The audience will often surprise you.  Why program for 14 year old boys?  This isn’t the tentpole business where you only need two weekends and a lot of noise and special effects; 14 year old boys aren’t watching TV and “Knight Rider” didn’t bring them back.  I’m watching TV and eventually advertisers will learn, if they haven’t already, that brand loyalty is a thing of the past and they should aim for that part of the audience that still has money to spend. This is a show I want to see and if the first pilot didn’t work, for whatever reason, do it over!

Life Lessons for Writers:  Beware the Upset Price and negotiate your separated rights (it can’t be said too many times) because as near as I can calculate, if they still exist those rights to “Soccer Moms” should be reverting any day now, allowing for a return to the market.

Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: I have been a big fan for a long time.  Everyone I’ve talked to absolutely loves you, something that is rare in this business.

Don: Keep digging, you’ll find plenty of detractors.  It’s always that way, some people love you, some people don’t.

Neely: Your comedy bona fides are incredible dating back to “Alf.”  You’ve come a long way – please tell us how you got started in the serious business of comedy.

Don:  It was like the Butterfly Effect – how small actions on one side of the globe create huge changes on the other.  In my case, I was cold one night. I was a staff writer on a show called “Misfits of Science” that was filming out by Magic Mountain.  Staff writer, but more, because we all did everything.  The hours were incredibly long: 16 hours a day; a lot of the filming was outdoors and it was freezing.  One day when we were waiting for Magic Hour (finding just the right lighting for the shot we needed), and all of us cold as hell, I was talking to Burt Brinkerhoff, one of our directors, and he said, “You know, there are jobs where you work indoors all the time.”  I landed the job on “Alf” and didn’t look back.

Neely: Almost all of your credits were in half hour and then you transitioned to one hour.  How did that come about?

Don: Multi-camera shows never alter.  Table read, rehearsal, film in front of an audience; repeat.  It all felt the same and I needed a change.  I was working on “The Hugleys” and realized that I no longer enjoyed the process.  I wondered if it was the show, and would it be any different if I were working on “Friends,” and I realized that it was the format.  So, I wrote a drama spec pilot to show that I could work in one hour and made the jump.  I was lucky enough to write a pilot for Greer Shepherd and Mike Robin entitled “The Boneyard” about an obituary writer. Working with them was a great experience, and by shifting to drama right before the comedy business collapsed, I felt like a stunt man who jumped over the speeding car.  The strategy worked so well, that during the press tour for “Samantha Who?” a critic asked me how a drama writer like myself could hope to write a comedy.

Neely: Any favorite experiences outside of the shows you created?

Don: This is going to sound strange, but one of my best experiences was getting fired off a show.  I created something with Danny Jacobson for the WB called “Simon.”  You never want to get fired, but being sent home and then paid off for the rest of the season is a great job.  I got to spend time with the woman I’d started dating who eventually became my wife.  She was a dancer and I was able to travel with her.  So I owe my life and family to the WB.  “Thanks, WB, sorry you’re dead now.”  I also really liked working on “Dave’s World.”  It was a great writing experience.  Some of the best scripts I ever wrote were written for that show.   Oh and then there was the time Farrah Fawcett handed me a tennis ball.  I was working on “Good Grief” and my bungalow was next to the bungalow of Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal who were also working on the lot. I watched them batting around a tennis ball and when they were called to set, Farrah turned to me, smiled and tossed me the tennis ball.  And when I was working on “Brother’s Keeper” I got to put Jack Klugman and Tony Randall together for the first time since they did “The Odd Couple.”  We basically cast them as the odd couple.

 

Neely: You have a gift for writing women.  Any comments or explanations?

Don: Three marriages, maybe.  The “women’s voice” is not  a problem – it’s getting them out that’s the challenge. I started out writing male buddy comedies and then just started writing women because I enjoyed it more.  I really enjoy working with female stars.  I have to say no writer could ever ask for more than to have Christina Applegate and Jean Smart say their lines.  To paraphrase Jim Brooks, “They make me want to be a better writer.” Those two could sell anything, but if the scene isn’t working, it isn’t because of them.

Neely: Let’s talk a bit about “Soccer Moms.”  How did you pitch it and to whom (i.e., did the studios get it, were you under an overall, was there any kind of competition to produce this)?

Don: The idea was pitched by Rick Copp who has written several mystery novels.  Marla Ginsberg got on board and took it to Francie Calfo at ABC. I met with Marla and Francie and liked the idea and wrote the pilot.  Francie was a big supporter of mine.  Like “Soccer Moms,” the idea for “Samantha Who?” also came from a novelist.

 

Neely: At the studio level, what kind of notes did you get?

Don: It must have been a cooperative experience because I really don’t recall.

 

Neely: How about at the network level?

Don: I was working on “life as we know it” which was filming in Canada, so the whole development process was over the phone.  And in Canadian, which made it tough.

 

Neely: In terms of production, how involved were you at the various levels?  Did you have a say in choosing the director?  How about the cast?  How much time did you spend on set?

Don: As the showrunner, I was fully involved.  I spent a lot of time on set, I was there every second -- to the extent that it might have even hurt my other project, “Testing Bob” starring Peter Dinklage.  “Soccer Moms” was a satisfying experience all the way up to production; the product didn’t come out right.  Eventually the network wanted to see a very cut down version just to see cast chemistry.  Then I think Steve McPherson accidentally taped the Super Bowl over it.

 

Neely: Did what happened on this show influence you when you worked on “Samantha Who?”

Don: Any showrunning experience should inform and improve the next one and the bad experiences inform the most.  I learned that I don’t have an interest in working with difficult stars.

 

Neely: I so love “Soccer Moms” and would still love to see it.  Who owns the rights? If ABC was willing to redo “Eastwick” (and that’s all I’m going to say about that show), do you think there’s any way to convince them to retry this one?

Don: If the network loves a project, then they’ll run with it again.  I’d really hesitate to do “Soccer Moms” at this point.  I have kids and I realized something: if the character has kids in school or at home you can’t put the Mom in real danger and because of that you immediately take away the drama.  If I redid “Soccer Moms” it would have to be very light and no one could carry guns.

Neely: What’s the pilot process like?

Don: The wonderful thing about doing pilots is it’s great for the ego.  During casting, you have people coming in all day telling you how great you are.

Neely: Well onward and upward.  Can you tell me what you’re working on now?

Don: I have two pilots in the works, one for CBS and the other for ABC.  The ABC pilot was my assistant Correne’s idea.  She was a lawyer before trying her hand at writing and she’s co-writing the story; I’ll write the teleplay.  It’s a half hour comedy about Millenials (the 20-26ers).  These are the Trophy Kids the ones who got trophies for anything they did – you know, the “everyone’s a winner” kids.  What happens when these entitled but very happy kids, the largest generation, hits the work place?  The CBS pilot is a domestic comedy about the many versions of me – I’ve been single, married, divorced, married, divorced, married, a stepfather, an adoptive father, a biological father, and so on.

 

Neely: I’ll look forward to reading and seeing those shows.

{jcomments on}

“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Groucho Marx


Part II

Eddie and Eileen lay naked, partially covered by a sheet. With Round One apparently behind them, Eddie’s mind is back on business. He studies his notes from the A.A. meeting.

Eileen: So?

Eddie: I went with a dead wife.

Eileen: (nodding) That’ll play.

Eddie: Guy’s wife dies, he starts drinking, starts taking it out on the world.

Eileen: Right. Made you bitter.

Eddie: I’m a bitter man.

Eileen: Who can blame you?

Eddie: I loved that woman.

Eileen: She was your world.

Eddie: Then one day, just taken from me.

Eileen: How?

Eddie considers the question.

Eileen: Disease?

Eddie: (a beat) Hit by a car.

Eileen: Why’s that better?

Eddie: Disease creeps people out. They don’t want to hear the story. But no one worries about getting hit by a car.

Eileen: Okay.

Both think on it some more, then…

Eddie: (excited) Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!

Eileen: What?

Eddie: I got it!

Eileen: What?

Eddie: Hit by a drunken driver!

Eileen reacts enthusiastically.

Eileen: Perfect.

Eddie: Do you see the irony?

Eileen: Yes. I’m not an idiot.

Eddie: Killed by a drunk, now I’m a drunk.

Eileen: I said I get it.

Eddie: I love irony.

Eileen: Irony works.

A beat.

Eileen: What was her name?

A beat.

Eddie: Marguerita.

Eileen explodes with laughter, laughing so hard, in fact, she accidentally falls out of bed (and out of frame). A grinning Eddie looks over in her direction.

Eddie: Do you see the irony?

Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: There was far too much to cover in just one article. I wanted to get into your start as a writer in more depth, as well as talk about upcoming projects.

Neely: When did you know that you wanted to write?

Dusty: When my father told me he wouldn’t pay for law school.

Neely: How about the backstory on that one.

Dusty: (laughs) He always thought I was going to end up in Show Business, either as an actor or writer, or something. He always wanted me to be a writer. He thought I was funny and he thought I could make a good living out here.

Neely: You’ve got to be kidding!! This is the first time I’ve heard something like that!

Dusty: Oh, yeah. It’s absolutely true. At the end of my sophomore year of college I was starting to panic a little bit about graduating and coming out to LA and trying to break into Show Business. So I went home and figured I would make the announcement that every Jewish mother and father would love to hear – “I’ve decided to go to law school.” And there was this long pause and my father goes, “Yeah? Who’s going to pay for it?” (laughs) “I was kinda hoping you would.” And he says, “You’re going to Hollywood kid.” And that was pretty much the end of my law career.

Neely: What did your father do for a living?

Dusty: He was a car salesman and then he became a Veterans’ counselor.

Neely: That’s a rather extreme change.

Dusty: Not if you know him. He graduated from NYU with a degree in business and he loved to sell. When he was young he used to go through the South selling jewelry; then when he got a little older and met my mother, he went to work selling Chevys. He just absolutely loved it. I can’t tell you why, but he just loved selling Chevys. He was also a war veteran, purple heart winner and when the opportunity arose, he became a veteran’s counselor and worked with veterans who were having a hard go of it. He found great satisfaction in that as well.

Neely: And your mom… did she work outside the home?

Dusty: She was a travel agent and apparently one of the best ever. People would come in for a weekend in Atlantic City and end up booking a month in Europe.

Neely: Was she as supportive as your dad of your potential comedy writing career?

Dusty: She would have preferred that California was closer to New York, but yeah, she was. You know my childhood would never lead you to believe that I’d go into Show Business. I was always playing sports – that’s all I cared about, all I loved. Playing baseball and stick ball… I had no cultural inclinations at all. Then when I was sixteen, I decided to do something I had day dreamed about – I tried out for a play in high school, a play called “Summertree.” My parents came, not knowing what to expect. I was pretty good, apparently, and they just changed the way they looked at me from then on. After that I would say that this was what I wanted to do, that I wanted to go into Show Business; it just seemed that it was inevitable. Anyhow, that’s how they viewed it. I suppose there were times when they said “You know, it’s tough to break into Show Business.” But they never tried to talk me out of it and they were always totally loving and supportive about my decision.

You know how you always make your friends laugh before you do it at home, and I was no different. My parents didn’t know I had a sense of humor until long after it developed. I remember I was going to do this bit in a high school talent show – I was going to sing “The Impossible Dream” as Jackie Vernon, the wonderful comedian. Now my Jackie Vernon impression back then was pretty damn good and I remember starting to do it at the dining room table and I’ll never forget my mother’s laugh. I think it’s of the best memories I have. She was just absolutely flabbergasted. She laughed so hard out of pure enjoyment and absolute shock.

Neely: Where did you go to college and what did you major in?

Dusty: I went to Northwestern because if you want to go into Show Business, that’s the law. And I was a theater major until they asked me to leave the department.

Neely: Ok, I’ll bite. What’s the story on that?

Dusty: At that time the theater department was all about the classics; anything written in the 20th Century was beneath them. And me? I loved Neil Simon; I loved Murray Schisgal, I loved Herb Gardner – those were the things I wanted to do; those were the scenes I wanted to perform on stage. They wanted me to do Shakespeare. I enjoyed reading Shakespeare but, as you can hear, I don’t necessarily sound like a Shakespearean character.

Neely: No, I can hear that. You’re a little Tony Curtis and “Yondah is duh castle of my faddah.”

Dusty: Sure. So there were big discussions and arguments. And there was one particularly heated argument with a theater professor on the stairwell that didn’t end well. So I was asked to leave. I had started writing at that point, taking some creative writing courses and when I told the head of the English Lit department, a man named Elliot Anderson, that the theater department was trying to get rid of me, he said “Come over here.”

It was the best move I ever made because I got to work with Elliot who was an incredibly talented teacher. And I studied with one of the most extraordinary men I’ve ever met, Dr. Dennis Brutus who was a South African poet who fought apartheid and had spent time in South African prisons. He was just an extraordinary influence. Oh boy, I’ll never forget… he was such a serious man and his work was so impressive, everyone who took writing from him tried to impress him. Everything that was written in those classes was of such staggering significance, or so the writer believed. And me? I’m writing my dopey little funny short stories. And finally I go up to him after a class (it may have been the second or third creative writing course I had taken from him) and we knew each other pretty well at that point. What I was trying to do in those days was the kind of short stories that Woody Allen was writing at the time. And I just said to him, “You know I gotta tell you. I feel like a real horse’s ass. Everybody is writing these things that are so meaningful and I’m just a third rate college Woody Allen wannabe.”  And he took me for a walk on Lake Michigan; we must have spent three hours out there. We had this amazing discussion about the difference between “Fail Safe” and “Dr. Strangelove.” How, if you pour eccentricity and neurosis into “Fail Safe,” it becomes a comedy, or in this case a satiric comedy; it becomes “Strangelove” because they’re basically the same story. Those were the most instructive three hours during my time at college; it was just incredible. I just suddenly realized what I was trying to do in terms of being a comedy writer.

Neely: Did you stay in touch with him?

Dusty: No, no. I didn’t stay in touch with him or any of my college professors. I don’t know why. It’s something I deeply regret. I guess just coming out here was a whole new world of challenges and problems. That first year there was some correspondence but after a while there was just nothing left to say. I know he ended up being the chairman of the department at the University of Pittsburgh. I’ll tell you what’s interesting… he led some sort of protest against Apartheid South Africa’s participation in the Olympics. I never knew about that until years later. He was such a modest man. I didn’t really understand what he had been through in South Africa and what a courageous personality he was until later when I read about him. When I was a college student it never even occurred to me to dig into the background of a professor. I just thought – hey, here’s this great professor who I kind of know is a civil rights pioneer in South Africa but the full extent of what he accomplished didn’t occur to me until years later and made me want to call him and touch base. But it never happened and he’s gone now, so it’s never gonna. (Note: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_Brutus)

Neely: You answered most of my next question because it was about mentors and supporters. What other mentors have you had along the way?

Dusty: Everything I really know about writing a funny scene I learned from Del Close. When I was at Northwestern I spent almost two years at the Second City workshop. My college buddy, Bill Nuss, and I had been doing standup comedy in our spare time and a woman named Joyce Sloan, who was the associate producer of Second City came to us and said we ought to come down to the workshop. So we took her up on it and Del Close was the artistic director of Second City and one of the pioneers of improvisation. The man was an absolute genius and I learned more from him in terms of putting together a funny scene than anyone else. He always said “Don’t judge me now. Five years from now, after you’ve been writing for five years, you’re going to know whether I did a good job or not.” And I’ll be damned if five years later, I’m sittin’ there writing a scene and I thought of him and realized “Holy Smoke! He was right! It’s been five years.” He was just incredible. The man had problems, everyone who knew him knows that, but it never took away from what he was able to accomplish on a stage. There were times he was really out of it and he’s sitting in the back of the theater and me and someone else would be up there doing our little scene and it wouldn’t be going particularly well. And from the back we would hear this voice and he’d be trying to explain to us what we were doing wrong. He wasn’t particularly coherent and he wasn’t particularly articulate and then he said, “Dammit!” He came up and simply did it. He couldn’t talk about it; he just did it. And he had everybody on the floor. It was just so effortless for him. He was just incredible.

Neely: How did you land your first writing gig?

Dusty: Bill Nuss and I came out here with the intention of breaking in as a comedy writing team. And of course, there’s no rule book for how to do that. So, we decided that we were going to go to as many comedy tapings as possible and sneak backstage and try to find somebody who looked important and give him a packet of our sample material. Most of the time we’d get thrown out; some of the time, someone would smile, like they appreciated the effort. This went on for a few months and nothing happened. This is absolutely true. There came a Sunday where I was finally officially broke and I had taken a job as an assistant circulation manager for the Los Angeles Times. I was supposed to report there Monday morning at 2:00 a.m. and I was looking forward to this as much as a root canal. I was just lying there in bed, just miserable, three hours away from having to put on my shoes and go do it. Sunday night, 10:00, I get a phone call from Bill. He says, “You’re never going to guess what just happened.” “What?” He says, “I just got a call from a guy named Alan Thicke. Alan Thicke is one of the guys we gave our packet to months ago. He’s starting a Canadian variety show and we start on it tomorrow!” It was absolutely amazing! We wrote on that show for about two-three months, it was a short order. We worked at his house on Mulholland. He was a very very nice man, very supportive. Of course it was before “Growing Pains,” so we really didn’t know who he was; he was just very nice. We wrote sketches up at his house. Here’s the funny thing. It was a Canadian variety show starring a guy who was described as the Canadian Donnie Osmond, so you know he performed the comedy great. (Neely laughs) We never saw any episodes. So the first writing job we ever had, we never saw it. In fact, to add insult to injury, the review in Variety misspelled Bill’s name and left me out it entirely.

Neely: Well, what came from that?

Dusty: Bill and I went our separate ways for a while. I started doing pilots and producing the occasional show. Bill first went to work at NBC as a development executive and then he ran a bunch of shows at Cannell, including “21 Jump Street,” and we’re working together again, but I’ll save that for later.

Neely: I ask everyone this question, but what do you read for pleasure? For inspiration?

Dusty: The Sporting News

Neely: Really? That’s the sum total of what you read?

Dusty: That’s it. I remember when I was younger I was about a third of the way through “Mansfield Park” and I swore to myself that if I ever got through it, I’d never read another book.

Neely: I take it you got through it.

Dusty: Barely.

Neely: So you never read another book.

Dusty: Nah, I’m kidding. There’s nobody currently that I find particularly compelling. It all seems to be about lawyers, spies or women finding themselves. None of that appeals to me. If something doesn’t have humor in it, I’m not really interested. And there aren’t a lot of good comedy writers writing fiction these days. You know, it’s funny. I just read this book that someone recommended to me called Playing for Pizza by John Grisham. It was very disappointing.

Neely: If you haven’t read The Dreyfus Affair” by Peter Lefcourt, you should. In its own convoluted, hilarious way, it’s about baseball. I remember that as a kid my reading habits used to drive my parents crazy. I was in love with comedy and especially the short books that Alan King wrote, like Help! I’m a Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery. I was in a few comedy reading contests using his material (I didn’t win… ever).

Dusty: Alan King, the comedian?

Neely: Yeah.

Dusty: I have an Alan King story if you’re interested.

Neely: I’d love to hear an Alan King story. He’s gone now, but I adored Alan King and thought he was a very under used and under appreciated dramatic actor.

Dusty: I thought he was great. He really was a good dramatic actor. But he was also an executive producer of television and his company was coming after me hard to do a sitcom pilot. It was their idea, an okay idea, but I was going back and forth with them. So I’m visiting my then agent at William Morris and I’m standing outside the William Morris office when all of a sudden I hear a car screech to a halt behind me. I turned around and it was a giant limousine; out steps Alan King and the guy I had been meeting with at his office. Alan King points to me and turns to his guy, “This is the guy??” And the guy says “Yeah.” So King comes over to me and we start talking. We’re kidding around for a few seconds while he’s trying to get me to come do the thing, but after about two minutes he starts talking about his flight out to LA. He’s absolutely hilarious and he goes on for about 8 minutes and we’re falling down on the sidewalk. The next night he’s on “The Tonight Show” and I realized that he was using us as his out of town run. It was that exact act that he did on “The Tonight Show” the next night.

Neely: And you didn’t go and do his show, right?

Dusty: Nah. I didn’t do it. I had a lot of options.

Neely: What have you been watching on television? Are you a network or cable guy?

Dusty: Not much. I’m sorry “24” is gone; I enjoyed it. I love “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I love “30 Rock,” “The Office.” What am I forgetting? I like Penn and Teller’s show a great deal. Boy it’s sad, isn’t it. That’s about it.

Neely: Well, it’s not bad. It’s almost all comedy. There’s actually some good comedy on now. I particularly like “Modern Family.”

Dusty: I’ve heard that’s good. I just haven’t sampled it. I’ve got the major league baseball package.

Neely: Well your time is taken up. And of course football is now starting.

Dusty: Can’t wait.

Neely: As far as I can tell, your last steady gig was a few years ago on “Entourage.” What have you been doing since then?

Dusty: Ah! Getting back to Bill Nuss. About a year and a half ago, maybe even a little longer, Bill calls me up and tells me that Les Moonves has agreed to grant him the rights to do the Broadway musical version of “The Honeymooners.”

Neely: (laughs) I didn’t know there was one.

Dusty: There isn’t one yet. We have finished co-writing the script, the book – I have to get my Broadway lingo straight. We co-wrote the book which has gotten terrific reaction and we’re about half way to bringing this thing to Broadway. We’re also serving as producers, though other producers with Broadway backgrounds will be joining us as we go. Out of town theaters are circling for the out of town run; top directors, actors…

Neely: Who’s your composer?

Dusty: Steven Wiener and Pete Mills. They are absolutely fabulous. They’re both ASCAP winners and Richard Rodgers Award winners. They are just incredible. We’re really rounding the clubhouse turn in terms of the score. We’ve got about two songs to go and so far we’re in love. When people hear this thing, I mean we just have all the hope in the world. We think we have a hilarious book and a great score. Investors are lining up and it just looks really good.

Neely: Where are you going to workshop it?

Dusty: It’s a conversation we’re having, in fact, next week – where in New York to workshop it. That would precede the out of town run which could be in any number of cities: San Diego, Chicago, San Francisco, even Seattle.

Neely: I would really love to see this. Any possibility you could send me your script?

Dusty: Absolutely. Anybody who wants to read this thing, I send it to them because I just love getting the reaction.

Neely: I live and die for theater.

Dusty: It’s funny. I always loved the theater and having this opportunity to finally go back to New York and work on Broadway is just a real thrill. It’s been a lot of fun working with Bill again. We stayed close friends over all the years and we’re just having the time of our lives.

Neely: What a wonderful cap to a wonderful career.

Dusty: I hope it’s not the cap!

Neely: Good point. Well it’s an amazing cherry on the cake.

Dusty: I agree. It came so out of left field.

Neely: Why do you think Moonves singled you guys out?

Dusty: We’ve known him for a long time. I’ve written pilots for him; Bill has too. We used to socialize occasionally; play in the same poker game. I mean there’s a lot of value in making people laugh; they remember who makes them laugh. I think Les always knew we were a couple of funny guys. And he obviously knew how we felt about “The Honeymooners” franchise. It’s our favorite all time show. I think he felt comfortable. From what we’ve heard, a lot of different people have approached CBS over the years to try and get the rights to the show and have been turned away. I think Les felt comfortable giving it to us and we’re very grateful. He needed to find someone he trusted because CBS is a royalty and profit participant in the musical.

Neely: I think he made the right decision. I really love your writing and I hope to see more. There’s not enough laughter in the world, and you made me laugh.

Post Script:

Neely: Dusty, please thank Bill for sending me the script to “The Honeymooners.” I laughed until I cried. You guys really nailed Ralph and Norton and found the perfect “fish-out-of-water” plot to highlight both their strengths and incredible weaknesses. I love that this is a rock solid old school musical with songs and story and characters and plot. It’s about the American Dream featuring characters we grew up loving. I hope you’ll keep sharing it with me as it makes its way to Broadway, because I have no doubt that that’s where it will end up. I just hope that there will be tap dancing (I love tap dancing).  Keep us all posted.

{jcomments on}

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me.” – Hunter S. Thompson


What: Eddie Lodger was on the fast track to partner in one of Madison Avenue’s most prominent ad agencies until…

Who: Eddie Lodger has never wanted anything more than to be an ad guy in New York and has worked hard to make his way up the ladder. If he has an Achilles heel it’s not suffering fools and criticism, especially criticism from fools. His, shall we say, over reaction when told that he was being replaced on the Purina campaign resulted in him sending his supervisor crashing through the conference room glass partition. Not exactly a positive career move and although he doesn’t view it this way, Eddie was lucky to land a position with Iron City Advertising in Pittsburgh where he is now working on the Angelo’s Pizzeria account. Eddie has taken his big city ways to the smaller arena: he steals, he lies, and he still goes psycho on colleagues (Bryce in particular) who don’t back him up. It comes as a major shock when his colleague and girlfriend Eileen informs him that their boss Walter intends to can him. Fix things, or next stop down on the food chain – Des Moines.

Eddie walks down the street, stunned and depressed. He turns to us.

Eddie: First rule; you don’t act like an S.O.B. til you score big. People don’t like that. They’ll resent you for it. Being an S.O.B. is something you earn over time, like stock options or profit sharing. (more to himself) Print ads for Laundromats in Des Moines. (eyes widening) “And remember, Tuesdays are Free Bleach Nights.” (a beat) Just kill me now.

But during his walk, while passing a sign on a door, Eddie finds his personal big account – his unassailable get-out-of-jail card.

Int. Conference room – Day.

All eyes are on Eddie, a man in pain.

Eddie: …that since you’ve known me and for many years before that, I’ve been an alcoholic.

His colleagues register surprise.

Eddie: When you can’t control your own life, the self contempt is almost unbearable. Sadly, you find yourself taking it out on those around you. And for this I feel shame. (a beat) So I apologize. I apologize deeply. And Bryce…

Angle on Bryce. A bit bruised, a bit swollen.

Eddie: …I owe you a special apology. When I see someone like you, so bright, so gifted, so full of promise… (voice cracking) …it reminds me of someone else who might’ve embraced his own dreams if he hadn’t, instead, chosen to crawl inside a bottle. I resented you… and behaved horribly. (his “emotions” building) But you should all know that I haven’t given up. And with God’s help, and your understanding, maybe I can turn this thing around. (a beat) Excuse me.

He leaves the room. Those who remain sit in stunned silence. Eileen wipes away a tear, and then heads out of the room after Eddie.

Int. Eddie’s office – Day

Eddie sits at his desk, fairly satisfied, looking over a yellow pad filled with notes.

Eddie: (to us) Let’s see… The Bryce stuff; “…a young man like you, so bright, so gifted”, that crap worked nice. (reading further) The “God’s help and your understanding” part, that went well too, I thought. Concise. Well presented. (reading further) But here; “…someone who might’ve embraced his own dreams if he hadn’t chosen to crawl inside a bottle.” (looks up, to us) I might’ve gotten a little too cute there.

Int. Conference room – Day

They’re all still sitting there. A beat, then…

Bryce: Anyone ever see him drunk?

All shake their heads “no”. A suspicious Bryce eyes Walter, who also appears to have his doubts.

Eddie still has his work cut out for him and will need to gain some AA credibility and attend meetings with a viable story.

INT. Basement – Night

A few rows of seats face a podium up front. Most of these seats are filled. The mood is somber yet supportive.

Eddie sits in the back, a notepad on his knee.

Eddie: (quietly to us) This place is perfect. Why concoct a story when you can take from real life?

Eddie carefully jots down the stories he hears until he is cornered by his neighbor.

Andy: Jack, we have a new member here. Maybe he’d like to introduce himself.

The entire room turns to face Eddie.

Eddie: Nah. I’m good. Thanks.

Group Leader: Please don’t feel inhibited here. We’re all friends. And we’d like to know you.

Eddie, feeling trapped, grows uncomfortable.

Eddie: Where? Up there?

Group Leader: You can do it from where you are, if you prefer.

Andy sits. Eddie shoots him a nasty look, then…

Eddie: Alright… My name’s Bryce.

All: Hello, Bryce!

Andy leans towards him, whispers…

Andy: You should stand up.

Eddie shoots him another nasty look.

Eddie: (to him) Alotta rules here. You gotta talk, you gotta stand. You’re dealing with a man on the edge.

Andy: We’re waiting.

Ext. Street – Night

The meeting over, members exit the building, some offering each other friendly goodbyes. Eddie and Andy come out together, head down the street.

Andy: Some meeting, huh?

Eddie: Yeah. How’d my story go over?

Andy: Whattya mean?

Eddie: The crowd, were they somewhat moved, moved, considerably moved…

Andy: I don’t know, uh… Somewhat moved, I suppose.

Eddie nods.

Eddie: (turns to us) He’s right. Needs a polish.

Andy: So, you wanna get a drink?

Eddie: Excuse me?

Andy: There’s a pretty good bar on the corner.

Eddie: I thought you were in Recovery.

Andy: I am. I just stink at it.

Edie: No thanks. Which way is your car?

Andy: I took the bus. I don’t drink and drive.

Eddie: Laudable. Come on, I’ll give you a lift home.

Eddie’s job is safe, at least for the moment. But, as Eileen points out, if he wants to keep this job and eventually get back to New York, he’s going to have to start being nice to the people he works with, the people he disdains, the people he considers idiots.

Eileen: You know, Eddie, if someone did to you what you’re doing to yourself, you’d beat the hell out of him. (a beat) Now it’s your choice, New York or Des Moines. But if it’s New York, you’re going to have to change… (a beat) Eddie, to get what you want you’re going to have to pull off the Big 180.

And to quote Eddie, “that’s the toughest move in the book.”

No Meaner Place: I’m not sure that there is anything more satisfying than a laugh in the face of political correctness and with “The Big 180,” Dusty Kay has taken on the mother lode of political correctness. There is something incredibly endearing about this unbelievable a**hole who seems to think that the world is his stage and the audience are all fools. Why do I think there’s a set up in there? Of course we don’t want to see Eddie go through the Big 180 and of course we won’t because much like the Greek tragedy of Sisyphus, Eddie will constantly be hauling that rock of sincerity, politesse, and warmth up the hill that will send it repeatedly crashing down on top of him; in which case we get our cake and eat it too!

 

It’s hard to imagine why, in an era of cookie cutter cuteness, this didn’t stand out. Did it stand out too much, or, as in the case of many sacred cows, did a poke at AA strike someone as too offensive? Puleese!  Doesn’t anyone have a sense of humor anymore?

Life Lessons for Writers:  In the immortal words of Bette Midler: F*ck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.


Conversation with the Writer:

It is impossible in print to convey the unique and not so mellow New York streetwise tones and accent of Dusty Kay. So while you’re reading this, imagine it is being spoken by Robert DeNiro in “Analyze This.”

Neely: I so loved this script. Eddie is such a nasty duplicitous guy. Where on earth did you come up with this idea and who is the inspiration for Eddie? (I know there has to be one)

Dusty: I got a phone call from a guy who screwed me in a business deal. He was going through the twelve step program and he called me to make amends. I really hated this guy and I’m sitting there listening to him talk and I’m thinking to myself that I want to say one thing but how can I. I just felt so taken with the idea that if I turned him down he’d go out and get drunk. So I told him I forgave him, when I really didn’t, and when I hung up the phone it was just burning me up. It just haunted me all night. The idea just popped into my head. You mentioned it earlier that AA is the get-out-of-jail-free card and I thought, what if there’s a character and he used that to his own advantage.

Neely: Was your target, since we can’t really call him a friend, in a twelve step program because he was an alcoholic or because he was a lying, cheating scumbag?

Dusty: I think he went for the first program because amends for the second one would have taken too long.

Neely: (laughs) The list would have been unwieldy, right?

Dusty: He could beat the liquor problem; the scumbag problem he couldn’t beat.

Neely: (cackling) I have to say that this script is even fresher today than when I originally read it, especially because everyone seems so much more intrigued by the advertising world because of “Mad Men.” Who did this go to?

Dusty: It went around; it made the rounds. Just about everyone who read it loved it. I got a lot of meetings off it; it got me the producer job on “Entourage.” I never heard anything negative and never got a bad reaction to it.

Neely: And yet…

Dusty: …and yet every time I’d be sitting in the room and they’d be paying me these compliments, I’d say, “You know, the script is available.” And they’d look at me as though I’d just run over their foot with my car.

Neely: So basically it resonated with everyone and nobody bit.

Dusty: Look, I mean between you and me and whoever is reading this, I think they often say that they want their writers to have a voice but, with rare exception, I don’t think that’s really true. I think this was just a little too sharp for their sensibilities as a series.

Neely: It’s clearly more cable than probably network; and it’s more F/X than it is USA. I’m surprised that someone at one of those… and again it comes down to when they say “out of the box” they really mean in the box but tied up with a ribbon. So this also went to cable?

Dusty: Oh yeah. Like I said, it got me the “Entourage” job at HBO.

Neely: Well what were some of the comments?

Dusty: They just loved it. There was never this… I don’t know. I, I , I could never pin down why they felt it wouldn’t make a good series.  I…I…I just can’t answer it. I never did get an answer why something that was held in such high regard wouldn’t make a good series.

Neely: What I’m going to say is politically incorrect. AA is a great organization and does a great deal of good, but I’m a bit tired of some of the sanctimony associated with it. I have a feeling that you might have stepped on some toes with the AA scam that’s central to the pilot. You know there are an awful lot of people in our industry that live and breathe AA.

Dusty: Yeah. You know, it’s funny, but I did get that reaction a handful of times and I never understood it. AA is a great organization… and I’m gonna need it myself in a few years. But it was Eddie who was pulling the scam on AA. AA did nothing wrong in the story. AA is something that Eddie just took advantage of.

Neely: I think that that may be part of the problem; that it’s the Holy Grail for anyone who is in AA. And again, I have to say that I know more than my fair share of people who have benefited enormously from AA (and I also know some who’ve worked the meetings as a dating source). But again, it’s the sacred cow. Say anything you want about anything including my mother, but don’t say anything about AA.

Dusty: I know. There are some things you just can’t make fun of even if you’re making fun of something else entirely and it’s just included.

Neely: Yup. It’s collateral damage. There also seems to be something about the program that dampens the sense of humor. I also loved the unnamed “Americans with Disabilities Act” that prevented Walter from firing Eddie. How were you planning on maintaining the ruse?

Dusty: Well obviously this was going to be the longest and rockiest recovery in history.

Neely: Well remember, an alcoholic is never no longer an alcoholic, he or she becomes a “recovering” alcoholic..

Dusty: Um hum. Well Eddie was going to be “recovering” for quite a while. Given the pressure he was going to be under trying to reform his character, he was actually going to start drinking.

Neely: Oh, wow! That’s a very interesting twist.

Dusty: And his colleagues were going to be aware that he was drinking. Rather than realizing that he had just begun, they were going to feel that he had fallen off the wagon.

Neely: Well is there a difference between falling off the wagon and starting to drink?

Dusty: Oh yeah! When you fall of the wagon, the addiction is already there. Rather than becoming a problem, they’re thinking “Oh my god. This poor guy is having a hard time licking this long term demon.”

Neely: I see what you’re saying. What were some of the other directions that you were planning on taking the series? Clearly you’ve thought out your hundred episodes.

Dusty: Definitely. The attempt to become human and decent and caring and professional was gonna all but destroy him.

Neely: (continuous cackling) I noticed that you have credits in both half hour and one hour. Most notably, you started going back and forth before the half hour format was declared dead (I believe the format has been resurrected, clearly because no one had stuck a stake through its heart).  How did that come about?

Dusty: I had an overall deal at a studio and I couldn’t stand the head of comedy. The head of one hour was a very decent and creative fellow named Ron Taylor and I tracked him down in the hall one day and said, “You know I have an idea for a one hour” and I was lying. But he said great, “Come on in and let me hear it.”

Neely: And then what happened?

Dusty: We sold it!

Neely: But you said you didn’t really have one.

Dusty: I didn’t have an idea; but once Ron said he was willing to listen, I went home and came up with a pilot idea that I liked. I had no idea what I was doing, but I went in; and again, I was very lucky with who I was working with because his creative instincts were sensational and he guided me through it. And we went in to ABC and they bought it in the room.

Neely: Do you prefer one format over the other?

Dusty: Not really. You know, I really just write the same way no matter what. I mean there are some structural considerations obviously, but I write the same type of characters. I’m not a joke writer, usually the form I feel most comfortable in isn’t multi-camera, it’s one camera. So, except for the story structure, which I’ve grown more accustomed to, the characters are pretty much the same.

Neely: Are there any advantages to one over the other?

Dusty: Well one’s shorter.

Neely: (laughs) That is an amazing advantage. But the shorter one doesn’t allow you as much room for development – character development.

Dusty: Oh sure it does. In many ways more. I would make the case that half hour television is more character driven than certainly the type of one hours that I was doing. You gotta understand when you talk about the one hours I was doing; I wasn’t putting “St. Elsewhere” on or any kind of heavy drama. When I started I decided to play on my strength and the action comedy form allowed me to put a lot of humor into the script. The action part was a lot easier to write than pure drama so it didn’t complicate it that much for me once I settled on a good story idea.

Neely: I noticed on Studio System that you have several acting credits. The one that intrigues me the most was a guest role on “Dr. Vegas.” That show is legendary in the annals of dysfunction. Anything you can share with me?

Dusty: I just felt bad for the cast. I was sitting there all week. It was a show that dealt with poker players at a casino so I basically spent all week sitting 3 feet away from Rob Lowe. And I could sense his frustration with what was going on. It was very uncomfortable. I kept thinking this poor guy, he’d been on the “West Wing” and now he’s dealing with this. The script that I acted in was actually quite good, but the director was very uncomfortable, very insecure. He was constantly consulting with his director of photography. I remember there was this one moment where there was a reaction shot of Joe Pantoleon, Pantoliano, whatever his name is (note: I think that’s why he refers to himself as Joey Pants – it’s probably easier for him too; that and the faux gangster cache), and the camera was just pointing right at him and he was standing there and all he was going to do was give a look. And there was a 20 minute consultation between the director and the DP. And the actors and the extras, we’re all looking at each other and everyone is going “It’s just a reaction shot.” And as soon as people started saying that at our table, Pantoliano yells, “It’s just a goddamn reaction shot!” You could just sense how frustrated they were at that point in the season.

Neely: Your perspective is very interesting because most of the blame for the dysfunction has traditionally been laid at the feet of Rob Lowe.

Dusty: I don’t know what went on behind the scenes; I just know that he seemed to be working very hard with people who didn’t quite understand what he was trying to get them to do. I mean his instincts seemed pretty strong to me and yet he was like a lone wolf howling in the forest.

Neely: I think he’s quite a good actor but let’s be honest about the concept of that show… a resident doctor in a casino with the tagline “one heals, one deals”?

Dusty: I can’t speak to that. I mean it didn’t make sense to me either.

Neely: Do you have any other actor credits?

Dusty: A few. Basically they were just favors for people. I mean, I’m not an actor, I’m just a type. I did this movie called “Sink or Swim”  (aka "Hacks") for my poker buddy Gary Rosen. It was kind of weird. He said, “I’m writing a murder mystery movie, an independent film, about a bunch of TV writers who get involved in a murder. And I’d like to use you as a character.” I said fine. So about a year later, he calls me up and says, “the script’s done and I’d like you to read it.” So I read the thing and tell him “You really got me.” He then says, “I want you to play you.” “You gotta be kidding. I’ve got more lines here than any other character in the movie.” He says, “I don’t know anyone else who could play you.” I said fine and I go in and audition for his producers. And I am beyond terrible. In fact, I think I cost the actor I was reading with a shot at the film because we were so bad together. It was like dancing with a bad dance partner. So afterwards I go over and say hello to the producers and they have these ashen looks on their faces like they’ve just seen “Schindler’s List,” you know. And I take Gary out to eat and I say, “Look man, you’ve busted your ass trying to get this thing done. I’m not going to be the reason this thing screws up.” And he says, “No. You’re doin’ it.” And I did it and it was the most fun I ever had. It premiered at the Los Angeles International Film Festival. It was great and I got to work with some great actors like Steven Rhea and John Ritter and Ileana Douglas and Richard Kind. It was just great fun and I got good reviews.

Neely: Are you happy with how you performed?

Dusty: Yeah. Yeah. I was just happy that I was just able to get there in the morning. I never woke up that early in my life!

Neely: What show did you enjoy working on the most and why?

Dusty: I think “Roseanne.” She was just terrific.

Neely: You mean you didn’t get fired off that show?

Dusty: No. I was asked back.

Neely: That’s extraordinary.

Dusty: Yeah. That’s what I was told at the time. It was just so much fun to write for that cast. I mean every one of them could deliver a funny line so powerfully in a way that you were just thrilled it was coming out of their mouth, something that you wrote. And also because it was out of my wheelhouse. Like I said, I’m not a joke writer. When I went there I was very intimidated by the idea that so much of what Rosanne did were these zingers, these one-liners that were more wit than behavioral, you know. There was a time before “Roseanne” where I wrote funny scenes and when I needed a funny line I would have to rely on instinct, but several months in what they called “the joke room” was like an education for me, in that I was schooled in the structure of a one-liner; how to create a funny line even if you’re not in a particularly funny mood. There were two writers in the joke room who were absolute geniuses at it. Their names were Bob Nickman and Matt Berry and I would just pick their brains. I must have driven them crazy. But what I always say is that the best thing about having spent a year on “Roseanne” was that I learned how to write a joke.

Neely: And you said you got asked back but it sounds like you didn’t go back.

Dusty: Yeah, but not for creative reasons. The hours on that show were absolutely ridiculous. If we got home at midnight I considered it a half day. I’m serious. The hours were incredibly long. And at some point there’s a frustration that comes from writing someone else’s character. I prefer creating my own characters. I was on the fourth or fifth year of the show and they had pretty much discovered the parameters of their series. When something is working like that they don’t like to go outside those borders. So in that way it was a little bit creatively frustrating but it was something I’m very glad I did. I have very fond memories of the show and her. She takes it on the chin a lot, and I guess sometimes she deserves it. But mostly I think it’s a bad rap. She was just such a perfectionist and she demanded a lot from the people around her and maybe wasn’t particularly diplomatic in the way she went about it. But I never felt that I wasn’t dealing with a true artist.

Neely: Do you think that there might have been less patience or less forgiveness because she was woman, or a woman in comedy than, say, if she’d have been a man demanding the same thing?

Dusty: You know I don’t want to be evasive but you’d have to read the mind of everybody who had problems with her to know if that was the case.

Neely: That’s a good answer. So on the other side of the coin, which show did you enjoy working on the least, and why?

Dusty: That was my own show. Early in my career I created a show called “Once a Hero.” It was a little ahead of its time in that it was a satirical show about a super hero who loses all of his powers and has to live the rest of his life like the rest of us; and he wasn’t particularly good at it. The reviews we got from one end of the country to the other was just the stuff you dream about. I really thought, “WOW!” I’ve got a monster here and… nobody watched. I mean nobody watched. Guys like David Bianculli, the critic of the New York Post made it like a personal mission of his to try to get his readership to tune in. When the show was finally canceled, Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times wrote an article about it much like the one you’re doing now about “The Big 180.” So it was very frustrating to go from so much optimism and hope to spending the last couple of months in production writing scripts knowing that we were going to get canned because nobody watched.

Neely: How many episodes did you go?

Dusty: Six.

Neely: Just six? What network in its finest hour couldn’t give you more than six episodes?

Dusty: ABC was the network, but I’m tellin’ you, we had what I think was the lowest rating up until that time that a Fall-premiered show ever received. We were on Saturday night and on Friday I got a call from one of the people at ABC telling me the phone number to call on Sunday morning to get the overnights. And in those days if you went over “20” you were okay, “25” was better, obviously. All night I was talking to people on my staff about how we thought we were going to do. Worse case scenario we get a “17;” best case scenario we get a “25” and we’re off and running. I called up on Sunday morning and the number was “8.” “8”! I was so stunned that I called back again because I thought I had misheard. I had to have misheard. Nobody gets an “8,” not in those days. These days okay, but in those days… an “8”. I called back like 19 times because each time I waiting for them to go “Dusty, we’re kiddin’.” It was brutal.

Neely: Was this when Saturday night was a viable TV night or when it was a death sentence?

Dusty: (laughs) As far as I’m concerned, it was a death sentence.

Neely: I don’t think Saturday night has been a night for TV since “All in the Family,” and that was in the early ‘70s.

Dusty: Well clearly this was after that. This was around ’87.

Neely: Then clearly ABC did not have faith in the show.

Dusty: Well, no. We didn’t get a lot in the way of promotion. That was the year that Dolly Parton did her variety show and every ad I saw on ABC was for Dolly Parton. No, we didn’t get a lot of advertising and people didn’t know about the show. The few who did thought that ABC was just re-doing “The Greatest American Hero.”

Neely: I guess I can see how people might have made that mistake, especially if there was so promotion behind your show.

Dusty: You know, one of the mistakes I made as a producer on that show (and it didn’t occur to me until afterwards when somebody pointed it out) was the super hero costumes. They were very similar to the other show. Maybe that added to the confusion; maybe they thought they were just watching something that had been on once before. I don’t know… I don’t know. It really doesn’t matter. The point is, nobody watched… nobody watched. I think another problem was that it was aimed at adults. A lot of critics pointed this out in their reviews. It was a show about a super hero but it was aimed more at adults than kids. So if kids aren’t interested and adults don’t feel like sampling a show about a super hero to find out that it’s really a satirical show as opposed to a straight super hero show like “Lois and Clark,” then who’s left to watch?

Neely: It sounds clearly ahead of its time and now a-days if you were to redo this, and it’s not a bad idea, animation might be the place to do it.

Dusty: Oh sure. I look at things like “The Incredibles” or this new show with Chiklis coming on – “No Ordinary Family” and I say to myself, “Yeah, this is where I was 20 years ago.

Neely: It sounds like you were a lot more clever than “No Ordinary Family.”

Dusty: I don’t know. I haven’t seen it.

Neely: I haven’t seen it, but I’ve read it.

Dusty: You don’t like it?

Neely: Nope.

Dusty: I’m a huge fan of Chiklis. I think he’s the greatest. I love “The Shield,” obviously. I would like the show to be good.

Neely: Well maybe it films better than it reads on the page.

Dusty: (laughs)

Neely: Clearly I’ve got way too much invested in your material to spend it all in one article. I think we’ll stop here and continue next week when we talk more about you and how you got into this crazy business.

Part II

{jcomments on}

“The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner


What: Lucy Remington Wright finds herself at age 38 back where she began so promisingly with a daughter to support, no education and on her own for the first time in fifteen years.

Who: Lucy Wright received a triple blow when she discovered that her husband, George, a newly appointed partner in Lucy’s father’s Manhattan law firm, had been cheating on her, that her father knew about it and that the SEC was closing in on George for investment fraud.  Soon to be divorced, Lucy, all of whose assets and property have been frozen by the SEC, packs up her rebellious 13 year old daughter Zoe and decides to move back to the one place where she had felt support, comfort and promise – “Chapel Hill”, NC.  She had left college to marry George and now feels an irresistible pull to start again where she left off.  Zoe, a child of Upper East Side privilege is very none too happy about this decision and begins plotting her return before they have even left the state. Already arguing about radio music on the drive out of the city – Lucy likes James Taylor, Zoe likes Eminem and there is no twain there:

 

Zoe: You kidnap me to Hicksville and I don’t even have my iPod anymore.  What’s the government want with it anyway?

Lucy: Probably for homeland security.  Spook the terrorists.

Zoe: It’s not funny.  I really love my iPod.  I need it.  Especially where we’re going.

Lucy: You know they have running water in “Chapel Hill”.  And electricity, too.

Zoe: If it was so great, why didn’t you stay?

Lucy: I dropped out of college to marry your father.  I guess right now that’s not looking like the smartest thing I ever did, huh?

Living arrangements in “Chapel Hill” are abysmal and Lucy’s work prospects are even worse until Garland Rucker, a friend from her past, offers her a receptionist job at his chaotic legal aid office.  Lucy immediately digs in and reaching out when she encounters the desperate mother of a Muslim student who has been expelled from the University because of a cheating scandal.  As the mother explains, her daughter, a star student and champion soccer player, couldn’t possibly done what the school alleges, but the daughter refuses to defend herself; Garland has closed the case because of the girl’s lack of cooperation.  A preliminary, off the books investigation leads Lucy to believe in the girl’s innocence and a possible conspiracy on the part of another student and a powerful faculty member.

Zoe has seemingly adjusted well at school, having attracted the attention of the popular girls.  Her comfort is short lived, however, when she participates in a hurtful scheme concocted by her new “friends.”  Zoe, alienated by her surroundings and feeling abandoned decides that she will return back to New York and live with her father.  Lucy, hurt by Zoe’s decision, supports it nonetheless, making sure that Zoe knows that she will always be there for her.

Zoe exits the First Avenue bus terminal.  She sees a man holding up a sign with her name on it.

Zoe: where’s my Dad?

Driver: He had to leave town for a few days.  Everything you need is at the apartment.

Zoe: When will he be back?

Driver: He didn’t say.

She soon returns to her mother, determined to make the best of what she still considers a pitiful situation.

 

No Meaner Place: Cosin has written a warm, interesting character piece that, in the best tradition of both comedy and drama, is essentially about a fish-out-of-water adjusting to a new, smaller aquarium.  The character of Lucy, though wounded, is a strong, resilient role model who decides that in order to move on with life she needs to start back at the point where she made her first missteps, as she realized almost immediately that leaving school and marrying George were colossal mistakes and that making the best of bad situations isn’t the same as moving in a positive direction.  Zoe is a marvelous depiction of a teenager with all the contradictions of personality that exist –petulant/enthusiastic, hateful/loving, rude/considerate.  As in all well-constructed pilots, we know who these characters are and eagerly await their growth and learning curves as they face new circumstances.

CBS commissioned this script in the 2005/2006 pilot season for possible launch in the 2006/2007 broadcast season but did not produce it to pilot.  I would still like to believe that it is unusual for something of this quality not to get a green light.  Researching that pilot season on Studio System I found that of the 121 scripts that CBS bought, 28 were produced – 12 dramas (among which was “Orpheus” by Nick Meyer), and 16 comedies. The shows that premiered in the 2006/2007 broadcast season were “Smith,” “Rules of Engagement,” “3 Lbs” (reshot from the previous pilot season), “The Class,” “Jericho,” and “Shark” – 4 dramas and 2 comedies, only one of which, “Rules of Engagement, may still be on the schedule.  Elizabeth was in excellent company as Ed Bernero, Denise Di Novi, Tim Kring, Barry Sonnenfeld,  Barry Schindel and Shane Black all wrote scripts that went unproduced.

The good news in this bad news situation is that since this very well written script was not produced, it will within a short time return to Cosin’s control; and as she writes of a universal situation, it does not have an expiration date.  More interesting, though, would be to try to interest the CW or a cable network such as Lifetime to take this to series.

Life Lessons for Writers:  If they don’t make it you’ll get it back. But better yet, if they don’t make it the first time, find a reason for them to make it the next time.

Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: Elizabeth, in the interest of full disclosure, everyone should know that we’ve been friends for a long time.  That being said, sending me your script was risky because I have always told you how I felt one way or the other – sometimes good, sometimes not.

Elizabeth: I’ve always respected your opinion and knew you’d be honest about it. I’m just glad you liked it.

Neely: You now live up in the Sonoma region.  What prompted the move?  Don’t you find it more difficult to maintain a footing as a working writer when you’re away from the scene? I’m sure that part of the incentive for living far from the maddening crowd (the actual expression is “Madding” but since that refers to sheep and you’re closer to sheep up there than you would be down here, I changed it) is the love of gastronomy you share with Ignacio, your partner.  I can envision the two of you giving Alice Waters a real run for her money.  What did you serve at your most recent dinner party?

Elizabeth: The main thing that prompted the move was worry about the real estate market and a possible writers strike. Both of us are freelancers and our income isn’t consistent so the prospect of facing a mortgage in uncertain times was daunting. We took a chance and put our Santa Monica house on the market and got a great offer. After that, it was deciding on where to go from there. We picked a small town in Sonoma where we’d vacationed a few times and think we’ve found our forever home.

While we adjusted to small town life very quickly, work-wise it’s been a lot of trial-and-error.  Early on, I probably didn’t get down to Los Angeles enough and then we had the strike and the only trips I made to L.A. were to walk the picket line. But I think it’s possible I needed the time away from the “big city’ to regroup and also to re-examine my creative life, to ask the tough questions of what I wanted to write and more important to finish projects that for one reason or another were gathering dust.

I started getting down to LA a lot last year and have a regular crash pad there which has made it easier to be consistent about going. I’m there for a week or two every few weeks and it’s worked out great. At first, I kept the move quiet but I’ve found it’s helped more than hurt. First, I’ve got way less stress in my life and second, people love the idea that I had the “guts” to make such a big move and to live in an idyllic place.  They have no idea how easy it is though – and it’s not like I’m that far from L.A. – six hours by car or an hour by plane.

Plus the one great thing about living away from L.A. is being away from the L.A. scene. It’s not only the various distractions, it’s the expectations that can really crush a writer’s spirit. Down in L.A. you’re always hearing about who did what when and everybody’s in the business and the pressure can get to you, no matter who you are.  Up here, the pace is slow and steady, people don’t care what you do for a living and there’s a great creative vibe that comes from people who work the land, or in kitchens or as artists. I’m sure that sounds like a cliché, but when I was living in L.A. I didn’t see how much I was caught up in stuff that doesn’t matter. I mean I take myself way less seriously up here. My friends and family count this as a good thing.

This year I rented a small office in town which has been a real godsend. It’s on the second floor of an old winery building – a small room with no windows to the outside, no phone. It’s a great environment for writing – I find there are days when I totally lose track of time.

When I’m not writing, I have this amazing landscape all around me. It’s like living in France or Italy – all these rolling hillsides and vistas that go on forever and the two-lanes that snake around past old farmhouses, giant oaks and of course acres of vineyards. That’s just what I see on a routine drive into town . It’s been more than three years now and I haven’t tired of it. I mean I love L.A. and I can see living there again, but it’s pretty amazing how much a little quiet, a lot of beauty and almost total lack of traffic does to lower your stress level and improve your general disposition. And even better, it makes you pay attention a lot more to the things around you. As a writer, that’s invaluable and I think maybe something I forgot to do when I was in the middle of the rat race.

Of course, the proximity to the land is part of the great adventure – exciting too because we’re practically at ground zero for this country’s burgeoning new fresh food movement. As you know we’ve been big fans of great food and there’s nothing like living practically on top of it. We buy almost everything at the source from meat to cheese to fruits and vegetables – it’s a rare meal where I don’t know exactly where my food came from or who grew and/or farmed it. Ignacio has flourished here too and has collected lots of fans among the locals, farmers and chefs included. Our last dinner party was Christmas Eve. We had broccoli and leek soup with foraged chanterelles, fresh pasta with hand-picked local crab and local rack of lamb marinated in garlic, olive oil and as Ignacio says “all the herbs the lamb eats”.

Neely: You’ve written a series of three mystery novels with a terrific protagonist – Zen Moses, a zaftig detective who is a lung cancer survivor – much like yourself.  I always thought it would be the perfect vehicle for Camryn Manheim.  I was disappointed that it never made it to series – again it was CBS that passed, but what about that third book?  (This has been an ongoing conversation between us for some time).

Elizabeth: I still think Zen would make a great TV series but we sold it at the wrong time. Former Paramount exec Stacey Adams  (now with CBS) and Kelly Edwards (who I think is also with CBS now) were the big fans of the project but I think CBS really wanted another procedural – and why not? They had so much success with the CSI franchise and shows like Without a Trace and Cold Case. Zen is really a character drama masquerading as a detective show – closer to, say Rockford Files than CSI and while I was willing to explore the potential of it as a procedural, I think everybody involved knew my heart wasn’t in it.

Neely: I look forward to reading a new version, one that stays closer to your vision.  It’s been my experience that passion projects that are “adapted” to a studio’s proposed need rather than the “need” of the work or the artist never turn out as intended by either party.  One can always insert a procedural element – which by any other phrase is just a mystery to be solved – in a work of detective fiction (for, after all, what is detective fiction but a mystery to be solved?).  I still believe that the audience is hungry for character.

Elizabeth: At the time, CBS wanted Zen to be a cop, partly because they were worried about where the cases would come from.  I understand a lot of this came from the trouble the networks have had in developing detective shows with female leads. Their ideas and choices were interesting and I tried to make them work but I think ultimately we just had different visions for the show. I’m not wed to Zen as written in the books – I realize I will have to make changes to adapt it to TV, but there’s one or two elements I just didn’t want to move off of and that was where we got stuck. I’m grateful that CBS believed in the project in the first place – maybe we’ll revisit together one day.  I’ve been working on a new version of the pilot, my update of and homage to the detective genre. I’ll let you know if I pull it off.

Neely: You have one of the most interesting backgrounds that I’ve encountered.  As I recall you were a sports writer.  How did that start and is it still ongoing?

Elizabeth: Sports writing was a job I sort of fell into but grew to love. I definitely learned more about writing well from sports writing than any other job I’ve had. The single most defining moment of my life (so far) was getting lung Cancer in my 20s. When I got sick I was writing for a metro newspaper covering business but when I came back, I was kind of casting about for a new direction.  The initial prognosis wasn’t good and there was a period there where I was forced to consider my own mortality. Nobody wants to have those thoughts ever but especially no one in their mid-20s and to say it rocked my world would be an obvious understatement. Those uncertain weeks really made me reconsider my place in the world, my future, my life and what I would do with myself if I didn’t have a lot of time left. One of the people who helped me through was the sports editor of my paper and he’s the one who convinced me to try writing sports – after all, I’ve always been a big fan. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but I really learned about myself as a writer and was great training for my leap to fiction.

Neely: What an inspiring story, especially that you were nurtured at a time you needed it the most.  I’ve always followed sports writing because I’ve always considered it the best writing in the paper.  Historically some of our greatest American writers wrote for the Sports Pages – Ring Lardner (Chicago Tribune), Damon Runyon (New York American), both famous for their short stories; Jim Murray (Los Angeles Times) and Red Smith (New York Times) both of whom elevated sports writing to the art of the essayist; and Roger Angell (New Yorker) whose annual wrap-up of the baseball season is reason enough to subscribe to the magazine.  I have particularly liked the books on baseball and baseball figures written by David Halberstam and George Will.

As a journalist and professional writer, what do you think has been the impact of the internet on the business, in general, and on writers, in particular?

Elizabeth: Probably this is sacrilegious to say but I think the Internet has killed journalism. There’s just way too much emphasis on getting the story first and way too little on getting it right. Bloggers don’t have to follow any of the rules of reporting or sourcing and too many rumors and incorrect stories fly around the Net too fast to make proper corrections or for wronged parties to respond. It’s a mess.

For fiction writers, the Net has been great though. Especially for authors – bookstores, publishers and authors connect easily through sites like Twitter and Facebook and fan, retail and publisher sites. No genre author can or should embark on a publicity tour without getting a presence on the Internet.

Neely: Living in Sonoma, you must miss the sports action.  Who do you root for up there? You can’t still be a Clippers fan, can you?

Elizabeth: I’d be lost without my DirecTV.  I get to follow my favorite teams – the Mets, NY Giants and Knicks from the comfort of my living room.  We make occasional trips to see games in Oakland and San Francisco.

Neely: Let’s talk a bit about “Chapel Hill”.  Why Chapel Hill? What’s the connection?

Elizabeth: No connection at all. Except that when I first started as a sportswriter in Washington, DC, I covered the ACC conference in football and basketball and I used to drive down to the Raleigh-Durham area at least a couple of times a year. That sign in the pilot where the distance is replaced by a basketball score is real -- I remember seeing it once on one of my trips.

“'Chapel Hill 15, Wake Forest 40’ Someone has scrawled out he mileage and replaced ‘15’ with ‘85’, so it reads like a lopsided basketball score.”

When I was thinking of a town, I wanted to use a place that had a liberal arts college and a varied population ethnic and class-wise -- a spot that could be part small town, but burgeoning new city.

Neely: Was this an idea pitched to you or did you come up with the premise?

Elizabeth: It all started because I wanted to write something outside the procedural world where I’d been pigeon-holed – I mean I just came off a run of working for shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent,  24 and Dragnet and while it was awesome and certainly paid the bills, I wanted to write something different, show my character chops. The original idea was pitched to me by Charles Segars who produces as well as runs development at Scripps Networks (Fine Living and such). He liked my work and I loved his sense of characters and situations (and loved working him) so we set out to try to come up with a pilot together. He had a grain of an idea, kind of a like a female version of the hero in The Paper Chase. I loved the concept but I knew I needed to make it personal to me to really get my head around it. Charles was really generous in allowing me to take the story where I felt it should go and I ended up writing a spec pilot we both were proud of. It’s not that much different from the CBS version,  a little more set-up and slightly more comedy.

We tried to sell it over two cycles but got no takers – probably because the original had almost no procedural elements at all.  As I talked about earlier, I had sold my detective novels to Paramount but we couldn’t agree on a tone or approach. I was trying to save my deal with them when I brought up “Chapel Hill” over lunch with execs at Paramount and CBS – all women. I actually pitched it on the fly with no preparation but it worked because I’d been living with it for so long, I knew the characters cold and I believed in them and I had a definite clear idea about what the show was about.

Lucky for me they loved the concept so we set about re-conceiving it for them. It’s often in vogue for writers to whine about development execs and notes from the suits, but developing “Chapel Hill” was a great experience all around. Kelly Edwards and Jonathan Axelrod were the producers and they never stopped believing in me and the trio of Julie McNamara, Leigh Redman and Stacey Adams at Paramount plus Laverne McKinnon at CBS were all very supportive of the project and gave awesome notes. In fact, a note Julie gave me was critical to making the end of the show work.

Martha Williamson came on to help guide and focus the story and she was a wonderful mentor throughout the process. She took the time to understand my vision and never once tried to impose hers on it. I remember going off to write feeling very confident I’d deliver a solid script.

If I learned anything developing this script it was the importance of getting your whole team to believe in your show and in you. The crucial part is selling both – you and your show. Or more precisely, that you are the person they need and can trust to deliver this show. Every successful show has a steady leader at the creative helm, someone who will not compromise on the singular vision of the series, someone to make sure all the varied moving parts adds up to one big idea. The clearer your vision, the easier it is to get everybody on the same page. “Chapel Hill” was a true collaborative process and throughout it, I never felt like the network or the studio didn’t believe in my vision for the show or tried to impose their own over it.

Neely: I know it had to be heartbreaking because it was one of your best scripts and telling 100 stories would have been easy.  Seems to be just another case of the right script at the wrong time.

Elizabeth: It was terribly heartbreaking I admit. Though when Nina Tassler called me personally to say CBS was passing, I also thought it was going to open some other doors into development. So I was feeling hopeful for my future anyway. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find another pilot to work on together. I’m not sure who said it originally but I love the expression that Hollywood is a place where you can be encouraged to death.

Who knows why some shows get pick-ups and others don’t – mainly I imagine “Chapel Hill” wasn’t procedural enough (that’s a lot of what got added in the development process).  Still, I’m hopeful that shows like it will make it onto the air more now that we’ve seen successful character dramas. My favorite at the moment and the one I think that has a real kinship to “Chapel Hill” is “Friday Night Lights.”  It’s so brilliant, especially in the inter-relationships of its characters.

I love the way it investigates the deep inner world of small-town life and the people who live there, relying on emotional truths rather than familiar clichés. These are the places I would have wanted to explore in “Chapel Hill.” It was one of the rare scripts I’ve written where I can really say I know the characters, they’re based on real people I know. I mine a lot of true-life stuff for my Zen novels but those are fantasies. I mean I totally enjoy writing them but I felt “Chapel Hill” was going to give me a chance to create a rich landscape about a place and the characters that live there and the way their choices and mistakes weigh on themselves, their hopes and dreams and also about rising to the occasion when your life veers off course in ways you never expect. In a funny way, writing “Chapel Hill” made me a better novelist too.  My new novel is in some ways a connection to what I was trying to do with Lucy and Zoe – different characters and places but the emotions are very much of the same family tree. I’m not denigrating my Zen novels by any means – I’m really, really proud of Zen as a character but I grew up faster than she did I think and while I have every intention of returning to her adventures, I really needed to go to this other place in my writer’s heart first.  Who knows if I’ll make it work but then it’s supposed to be about the journey anyway, right?

Part of this has been theme and like almost all writers, I find I keep returning to the same themes over and over again. I don’t do it consciously, it sort of evolves on its own. “Chapel Hill” turned out to be about one of those themes, in this case it was the idea of starting over,  changing your life – making a big leap of faith into your future away from something comfortable and into some great unknown.  Of all the things I write about, this is among the most personal for me. I’ve uprooted my life more than once – moving out to L.A. from the East Coast was one of those times. First, the move was in part precipitated by surviving Cancer and wanting to make a big change in my life. I had a job waiting but I only knew one person in L.A. and didn’t even have a place to stay lined up past a week or two. The drive itself was an adventure – I had an idea of where I wanted to go but basically I just followed major roads and figured the route out as I went. To me it was a great new beginning, something I felt I had to do no matter what  -- kind of like the kid in “Into the Wild.”  I considered for maybe 3 minutes that it might suck being far away from friends, family, living in a big, new city, etc. but I never once considered what the cost would be to those people. Here I am on my great adventure and my parents are sort of grieving over me moving 3,000 miles away – this mere months after almost losing me to Cancer. They never once told me not to go and have been great anchors for me along the way, but since I moved out to LA we see much less of each other. I think by now they know I made the right choice but there will always be a tiny bit of guilt that I wasn’t physically closer to them, no matter that we talk on the phone every other day.

What’s a writer to do with that kind of shit but to write about it and that’s where I started with Lucy. Sure, her motives are ultimately noble but what’s the affect on Zoe who has as many reasons to want to stay in New York as Lucy has to leave? It’s not a reach for her to feel she is being dragged along on someone else’s adventure.  In imagining the future of the series, I thought a lot about their relationship and especially how it’s Zoe who has made the biggest sacrifice. I was looking forward to exploring how this affected both Lucy and Zoe and what it would mean for their relationship. That’s why Lucy has that moment in the pilot where she lets Zoe go – it’s as much symbolic as it is literal. She has to do this, even though it goes against everything she feels is right and it’s at that moment when Lucy really understands the big responsibility she’s taken on – that it’s not just her journey alone. I love that scene when she meets Zoe at the bus station. Those are the moments writers live for.  I was really looking forward to seeing this relationship grow and change over the course of the series  -- I know it would have been fun to write. As you can tell, I loved Zoe. She’s a perfect character because she’s an age where kids want can’t wait to grow up  but are still holding on to their last gasp of her childhood. Of course, like Lucy she has no idea she’s crossing a line. We hardly ever notice stuff like that until we’ve lived through it.

Neely: What about a different avenue?  Since CBS Studios is behind it, have they considered selling it elsewhere, or rolling it to next season?

Elizabeth: I think at this point, it’s back in my hands. I’d love to pitch it elsewhere – I have some ideas to update Lucy’s character vis-à-vis the recent financial crisis faced by the country. But I could easily see this on TNT – something to pair with the fabulous “Men of a Certain Age,” for example. And I’ve never given up hope that CBS will take another look at it – it’s really perfect for them and isn’t it true that “women of a certain age” (I won’t use THAT word) are in vogue these days? I’m so proud of that script.  I entered it into the WGA Writer Access Contest and won in the Diversity (women) division.

Neely: Congratulations.  But in some ways it is ironic…I never considered women, as a group, to be a minority.

Elizabeth: I know.  But if you look at the writing staffs of current programs you will find very few women. You’d be surprised how many shows don’t have any women on the writing staff.

Neely: What’s up next for you?  Have you been in town to pitch?

Elizabeth: I’ve got a new novel I’ve been working on. It’s not a Zen novel. The character is an LA cop on leave for a psychological problem and he ends up investigating a crime that forces him to confront his family’s past. I’m very excited about it and hope to have a publisher in early 2010. Then there’s the as-yet unpublished third Zen novel Zen Justice which may also see the light of day in the New Year.

I’ve done a lot of pitching the last couple of years – I’ve been out with two major projects in particular. One was a cop drama with a writing partner where we came this close to selling but I think in the end it was just too risky for most places.  I’ve got a new project with two young producers that I’ve excited about – a sort of character cop drama that takes place in another small southern town – which I’m just finishing a script for.

I also have a couple of spec pilots. One is a crazy cable drama in the vein of “Out of Sight” called “Small Crimes,” and the other is about a female cop who is haunted by her dead ex-partner called “Magic Hour”.

And finally, I’ve decided that 2010 is the year I will direct my first feature film. I’ve got a script I’m working on that I’m going to shoot on a shoe-string budget up here in wine country with an almost all local cast. It’s a story that I’ve wanted to tell for a long time and I can’t think of a better place to tell it than my little bucolic town.

Neely: All of that sounds fantastic and I can’t wait to see what happens.  Also, I still think there’s a home waiting for “Chapel Hill”.  I’m so happy to hear that you are pushing harder than ever.  As Phoef Sutton remarked in an earlier “conversation with”,

When I started, I knew it would be hard to break in; I didn’t realize that I’d have to continue to break in.

Please keep me posted and finish Zen Justice because I want more Zen Moses (and because I don’t think you’re done with her yet)!

As a parting note, I loved your “advice for young writers.” The following is an edited (for length) version:

It doesn't matter what anybody says or how much work there is or who gets gigs on the Who You Know circuit or who the best unemployed writer or unpublished script is. It doesn't matter. None of it does. What matters, what always will matter now and forever, is the work.

And not just any work but your work. What matters is if you are one of those people who are hard-wired to write then write you must do, no matter if it pays the bills or not. No matter what anyone tells you. No matter the prospects of getting paid or published or even printed on glossy white 3-hole punch paper. No matter what, period.

Because if you are one of those poor suckers, you already know the gospel by heart. You ain't in it for the money. Only a fool becomes a writer to get rich. You're in it because you're in it and there's no way out of it. You're here because you have no choice, because there are forces at work well beyond your control that compel you to turn that glob of gray between your ears into words and sentences, paragraphs and chapters, dialogue, scenes, acts, to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard or blood to stone. Because you have no fucking choice.

If it's in you, you know. And if you know, then you don't need anybody to tell you that you've just turned on to an endless two-lane between the voices in your head and those voices on paper making any kind of sense, the latter so far out on the horizon, you can't be sure if it's home or a thousand-foot death drop off a cliff.

I'll tell you what you say to that young kid just starting out or to the reflection in your mirror on those days when you're certain you've either written your last good word or the last word of yours anybody will ever read. You remind that kid (and you) that nothing will ever matter more than the work, that on this crazy, winding, frightening, amazing, wondrous, magical and sometimes fucked up ride that for sure has been chosen for us and not vice versa, the only thing you'll ever have any control over is your craft. And nobody can take that away from you. Not if you don't let them.

Check out Elizabeth’s blog on photography -  www.shyonelung.blogspot.com

{jcomments on}

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“I thank God I was raised Catholic, so sex will always be dirty.” – John Waters

Ben Zion parks his minivan in front of a modest duplex. He walks up to the front door and knocks. Greg, a built man in a karate gi, answers.

Ben Zion: I’m sorry. I think I have the wrong address.

Greg: Are you Ben Zion?

Ben Zion: Um, yeah.

Greg: I’m Greg. Crystal’s husband. Nice to meet you.

As they shake, Ben Zion tries to hid his shock.

Greg: Lemme guess. Crystal failed to mention she was married?

Ben Zion shrugs. As Greg laughs, Crystal enters. Between her clip-on ponytail, varicose veins, and the cavernous lines that show through her spackled on foundation, she’s more cougar than kitten.

Ben Zion: (V.O.) She also failed to mention that she was my mother’s age. I just assumed she’d be young. But, like most things I assumed about this world, I was wrong.

Crystal: Hey, hon. I gotta grab my bag.

As Crystal grabs her purse, a white parakeet flies into the living room. Crystal jumps back.

Crystal: Jesus! You scared me!

Just then, Dakota, Crystal’s eight year old tornado of a son, barrels in after it.

Dakota: Mom! Jesus escaped!

Crystal: I can see that.

Greg: Don’t worry, D. I’ll get him.

As Greg chases the bird.

Crystal: Let’s go, kiddo.

Dakota grabs his back pack. Ben Zion looks confused.

Ben Zion: Where’s he going?

Crystal: Coming with. Greg has karate and I couldn’t get a sitter.

Ben Zion looks hesitant.

Ben Zion: Listen, Crystal. I don’t care how much you’re paying me, I’m not taking a child to—

Crystal: (cutting him off) Relax, hon. He’s not going to my appointment. What kind of mother do you think I am?

EXT. Chuck E. Cheese – Later

Ben Zion pulls into the parking lot of Chuck E. Cheese. Crystal hands a twenty to Dakota.

Crystal: have fun, sweetie. See you in a couple hours.

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“To be honest? Original scares me. You never want to be too original.” – Lenny (“The TV Set” by Jake Kasdan) SM6GC4QMJUWN

Who: Ben Zion Baer leads a very sheltered life. A 22 year old Hasidic Jew living with his parents and working in his father’s kosher butcher shop, he has nothing to look forward to.

What: Working alongside best friend Manny, Ben Zion dreams of moving out of the family home and finding a cute girlfriend. Moving out is as much of a long shot as the cute girlfriend inasmuch as his dating life is dictated by Malka, the matchmaker hired by his parents. Without means, there’s not much chance of a decent match. The Baers are ground beef and Ben Zion is hoping for filet mignon (although flank steak would do).

Life takes an interesting turn one day, thanks to Manny who needs Ben Zion to substitute for him at his delivery job because he has to attend his sister’s quinceanera. Ben Zion had no idea that Manny even had another job, but reluctantly agrees to help.

A bad 80s apartment complex. Ben Zion approaches the number scribbled on the piece of paper Manny gave him and KNOCKS ON THE DOOR. SUNNY (20s), a bleached blonde with fake tits, answers. Ben Zion is caught off guard.

Ben Zion: Hi. I’m Ben Zion. Manny’s friend.

Sunny: Oh, hi. I’m Sunny. (tugging on his peyos) Cute. Like Shirley Temple.

Ben Zion pulls back, uncomfortable.

Sunny: Just gimme a sec.

Sunny retreats into her apartment. When she returns, she’s holding a pink bakery box. Ben Zion takes it.

Sunny: Aren’t you a gentleman?

Ben Zion: Thank you.

As he turns to leave:

Sunny: No. Thank you.

Ben Zion politely smiles and returns to his minivan. He places the bakery box in the back, but not before peeking inside to see an apple pie.

Ben Zion: (annoyed) He sent me here for this?!

Ben Zion climbs into his van, only to discover Sunny, sitting shotgun.

Ben Zion: What are you doing?

Sunny: You’re supposed to drop me off.

Ben Zion: I thought all I was supposed to do was pick up a package?

Sunny: (laughing) I’m the package. Didn’t Manny tell you?

Ben Zion: No. He failed to mention that.

Sunny: No biggie. All you gotta do is take me to the Safari Inn on Olive. It’ll be real quick. In and out in an hour... as long as he took his Viagra.

Ben Zion’s eyes widen, as he finally puts two and two together.

Ben Zion: Um, are you a... hooker?

Sunny defiantly shakes her head.

Sunny: Call girl. There’s a big difference.

And so begins Ben Zion’s initiation into the underworld. Despite his initial shock, Ben Zion treats Sunny (from Seattle, all irony intended) with respect and she recommends him to others. The price of his soul? $100 per delivery and well worth it. What he didn’t realize, however, was that Sunny’s employer expected a cut of the “delivery fee.”

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“The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words. – Philip K. Dick

A Continued Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: Our conversations have led us down many different paths. One thing we haven’t talked about is literary and film influences – books and/or films that had an impact on your life or career. I don’t have to ask if you have any, just ask what they were and are?

Howard: The only problem is that we’d be sitting here til August if we talk about that.

I think the book that has influenced me probably more than any other is called Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar, an Argentine writer who lived in Paris as an ex-patriot. It’s a kind of formally inventive and emotionally rich book about Argentinean ex-patriots living bohemian lives in Paris. I loved living in that world for the duration of the time that I was reading the book and I just go back and read it over and over so I can live in that world again.

Certainly, in a more genre vein, the canon of Noir writers has become my mother’s milk; whether it’s Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, David Goodis, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson – those are household gods for me. I’ve read, I believe, every novel that each of those gentlemen and lady has ever written and I go back and reread them again and always discover new stuff.

Neely: I remember my pleasure when I had finished all the works of Chandler and Hammett and then guiltily told my mother. I was waiting for her disdain as she always said that until you had read all of the classics you shouldn’t waste your time on other things (sort of a stifling attitude). So I told her and she remarked, “Oh how wonderful. They’re classics.”  You probably already have the recently published Big Book of Pulp Fiction.

Howard: Yeah.

Neely: There was some great stuff in there that I wasn’t aware of.

Howard: And then I go to the sort of lesser lights, the Wade Millers and Peter Rabes of this world. Faucett Gold Medal Paperback originals.

Neely: What are you reading now?

Howard: Right now I am going back to my two grand touchstones – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Moby-Dick. I go back to those again and again and again and again and again. My son gave me a kindle for my birthday, so now I carry those books around with me on airplanes and in hotel rooms. And then there are other writers who I read when I first came to Los Angeles and was blinking in the sunlight and had no sense of what Southern California might mean – I read Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 and that’s a book that has lingered with me. But on any given day I would give you a different list although I suspect, weirdly, that the noir writers and Jules Verne and Herman Melville would always be on any list. In other genres, I grew up reading pulp science fiction so J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs, who I think of as a science fiction writer, and Alfred Bester are never far from my bookshelf.

Neely: Watching? Big screen and small screen.

Howard: I’m watching a lot of films, but part of that was because I was on the foreign film jury of the Spirit Awards. I watched a lot of foreign films, but I do that anyway. I watched a lot of short films and first features for my Sundance Lab fellows. To me going to the movies now is… well it involves parking and dinner and theater.

Neely: I know what you mean. If anything is keeping adults from the theaters it’s the enormous cost (just tickets and popcorn are more than $30 per couple and if you factor in dinner…) What about television.

 

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“Money has no moral opinions.” – Abraham Polonsky

INT. Palm Beach Club – Day

The lovely dining room of a lovely club in Palm Beach, Florida. The men wear blue blazers. Except for the wealthy men, who wear pink blazers, lime-green slacks, as if money impaired the color sense.

We see a young-ish couple at a small table in the ‘Siberia’ of the dining room. She’s Tamra, he’s Brian.

Brian: Please—I won’t fuck it up.

Tamra: I wasn’t saying you would.

Brian: Well I won’t.

They stand and  we follow them across the dining room, from the far corner… across the main floor…

…to the prime tables. To the corner table by the window where, at this moment, Leonard and Rachel Wertheimer are enjoying their Cobb salads.

Brian: Mr. Wertheimer?

Leonard looks up. Says nothing.

Brian: I’m Brian Fischer. I’m chief of neurology at Beth Israel. And I just wanted to say that if I could be of any assistance to your mother—

Leonard considers. Then:

Leonard: Please sit down. This is my wife Rachel.

Brian: This is my wife Tamra.

Then:

Leonard: How are things at Beth Israel?

Brian: Doing well. And of course, thanks to your generosity—

Leonard bows his head. Waves his hand.

Brian: So if there’s anything I can do. Anything.

Leonard: If there were, I’d ask. But there isn’t. We’ve faced the facts on this one.

A long silence. Then:

Brian: There is something else.

Leonard looks at him.

Brian: I’m a surgeon. A good one. But still—A physician. With a physician’s salary.

Leonard: So you’re comfortable.

Brian: Comfortable plus.

Another silence. Then:

Tamra: We were wondering if you were taking on new clients. I mean we’re not—

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“A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle.” – Benjamin Franklin

What: It’s late August 2001 with only a few weeks left before the private shares in Landshark, a cutting edge internet company run by brothers Tom and Joshua Sternthal, will go public and make everyone rich.

Who: Tom Sternthal, 27, has the kind of confidence and arrogance that drips young internet entrepreneur. But Tom, whose brother Joshua is the computer brains behind the operation, is all flash and not enough cash; he just doesn’t know it. Tom is to business what Victoria Beckham is to design – high fashion today, out of fashion tomorrow. For now, the presumption is that everyone wants in and Tom is manning the velvet ropes.

Int. Royalton – Lobby – Morning

Décor by Philippe Starck. Three bored, anxious suits, glancing at their Rolexes. And a large, clumsy, bespectacled guy named Joshua Sternthal. He’s the Chief Technical Officer of Landshark; and, by eighteen months, Tom’s older brother.

There’s a Nokia earbud in Joshua’s ear, a thin wire dangling down. His eyes drift off, as if he’s listening intently, while his mouth makes excuses:

Joshua: I’m really sorry, guys. (attempting a joke:) You know how it is. He gets nosebleeds above 14th Street.

Nobody laughs.

Joshua: Okay. Here we go. He’s on 44th. He’s outside. He’s handing his car to the valet. Yes. He should be here in—Here he is.

On Tom… as he threads his way to the table. Sits down. Grabs a waiter’s elbow.

Tom: (to the waiter) Tall skinny five-shot latte.

To the table:

Tom: I see you’ve met Joshua. He’s our cee-tee-oh. He writes code like—Like no one on the planet. He dreams code. (beat) Brad, Jonathan, we’ve met of course. And you’re—

Suit #3: Mason Neuberger.

Tom: Good to meet you. (beat) So.

With a truly winning grin:

Tom: You’re UniSol. We’re Landshark. Let’s make money.

Several beats of silence.

Tom: What’s your best sense of how to make use of us?

Then:

Tom: Where’s the synergy? What can we do, together, that’s really blink?

Again, no answer. Finally:

Suit #1: We were—

Suit #2: What Brad is trying to say—

Suit #1: Thanks, Jonathan. Where was I? Okay. We were expecting –

Suit #3: We were expecting your proposal.

Then:

Joshua: If we’ve miscommunicated here, I sincerely apologize. I think that what Tom and I—

Tom shoots him a look.

Tom: (interrupting) We are who we are. The brand speaks for itself. If you want a strategic alliance, you let us know what you’re willing to put up, how much cash, how much equity. Our CFO, as you know, is Dylan Gottschalk, and you can reach him pretty easily—Once you’ve made up your minds.

Tom grabs the latte from a passing tray.

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“Revenge is an act of passion; vengeance of justice. Injuries are revenged; crimes are avenged” – Samuel Johnson


What: Thom O’Daniel has just been accepted as an associate in the powerful DC law firm of Rittenhouse & Clover LLP.  All is not as it would appear.

Who: Fifteen years ago an innocent young man was sent to prison for a murder he didn’t commit.  An outsider at a prep school catering to the rich and powerful, Andy Linus was framed in the death of a female classmate during a raucous party at which he passed out.  By the time his case went to trial his alleged co-conspirator turned state’s evidence; Andy’s fingerprints and DNA were conspicuously at the scene of the crime; additional witnesses mysteriously appeared; his public defender gave up on him; and the judge sped through the trial eliminating most of Andy’s defense. Worse yet, as far as he was concerned, the letters he sent to his childhood sweetheart, Clara, all returned, unopened.  Angry, helpless and without protection Andy falls prey to guards and wardens intent on keeping him within their walls; but he remains determined to escape and clear his name, or at least discover who ruined his life.  Into his life and cell appears Milan Dotheo – a master of disguise and his future mentor.  Learning of Andy’s situation, Milan proposes an escape plan, predicated on Andy’s education.  Milan has kept a diary within his Bible, a diary that recounts his adventures and one that will reshape Andy into a brilliant man of the world.

Thom O’Daniel, Fulbright scholar, graduate of Stanford and Cambridge, with a three year stint in Paris at a law firm is the only associate candidate hired by Rittenhouse & Clover.  Step One of Thom’s plan has been set in motion, as he informs Gia, his young sister, partner and confidante, an expert in surveillance. At the law firm Thom insinuates himself onto the legal defense team of Gibson Logan, U.S. Congressman on trial for assault against a young female intern by pointing out that Logan is being defended by childhood friends, men whose familiarity with him might cause them to miss details. Thom quickly impresses the others with his preparation and knowledge. Working with the others on the team, Rex Filkins and Hutch Rittenhouse, son of the named partner and grandson of the founder, he observes that they begin to line up false witnesses beginning with a bartender who will testify that the girl had drunk 7 glasses of wine that evening.

 

Thom: Seven glasses of wine?

Hutch: …What?

Thom: I mean, at 110 pounds this girl would be unconscious.  Maybe the bartender should testify she had three, maybe four.  It’ll sound more plausible.

Rex thinks for a beat.

Rex: Re-interview the bartender. Have him testify the girl had four glasses of wine.

Thom and Gia’s carefully planted surveillance devices turn up the interesting detail that the law firm is on the Fed’s radar and that an FBI agent, Harold Jenkins, has been planted; more interesting is that the head of the firm is aware of it. In an “eerie” coincidence, Harold will later be killed in a convenience store robbery.

Relationships at the firm become more complicated when Preston Rittenhouse, name partner, anoints Rex as the next partner instead of his own son. Hutch had virtually guaranteed his beautiful wife that he was assured of this partnership.  Not only will this be devastatingly embarrassing for him but will cast a pall over the black-tie charity event they will be hosting that evening.

Thom is nearly undone when he is caught with a stolen file on Logan revealing Logan as the co-conspirator turned prosecution witness in a murder long ago, the murder for which Andy Linus was convicted.  Finessing the situation, Thom is able to use the file to uncover the nuances of the old case.

Thom: Andy Linus was convicted in a felony criminal case in which Gibson was originally included as a codefendant but later re-categorized a witness. So are you going to finally tell me what this is about?

Hutch: Andy Linus was a kid from school.  He was the son of an administrator, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who we barely knew and who never fit in. One night, I guess something snapped – jealousy, envy, resentment.  Who knows what was going thru this guy’s head. He killed a fourteen year old girl and left her body under a bridge.

Thom: Did he confess to the crime?

Rex: He didn’t need to confess. His blood and fingerprints were all over the crime scene. He was convicted. He was sentenced. End of story.

Thom: Is there a chance this scumbag Linus might resurface? Because if he does, our defense will be blown to  hell.

Rex: You don’t have to worry about Andy Linus showing up.

Thom: How can you be so sure?

Rex: Because Andy Linus is dead.

Moving ahead with the defense, Rex has located a security tape from the garage on the night the assault allegedly took place and plans on asking for a dismissal based on the tape.  Hutch strenuously objects because it could backfire; they could win just on the elements.  Rex, the new partner, disdainfully dismisses his friend’s concerns, further exacerbating their rift. Thom, however, discovers that Rex had been looking at the tape from a different floor and that the real tape reveals the assault in gory detail.  He surreptitiously substitutes the tapes and assures jail time for the Congressman.  Step Two has been accomplished, but there are still many more steps to go in his pursuit of justice and retribution.  Step Three is set in motion on the night of the charity event when he “re”-introduces himself to the love of his life, Clara, now the wife of Hutch.

 

No Meaner Place: Legal shows are the fodder of TV land and this one breaks out by combining internal mystery and suspense with the legal workings of a law firm and the courtroom.  The suspense is not whether Andy/Thom will be caught, because therein lies the 100 stories, but how he will achieve his goals and how elegantly he will be able to do it.  This is surely not “convict a partner a week,” as we’d soon run out of stories, but it is a marvelous platform for unveiling and unraveling the corrupt practices of power in an extremely interesting venue – Washington.

An additional hook is in the flashback, a technique that I generally don’t enjoy, that would serve to fill in more of the interesting details of how Andy Linus became Thom O’Daniel – an “Educating Rita” with a sinister side.  There is actually no limit to the back story with its shady mentor, Milan Dotheo.  And think of the locations - prison, Switzerland, Paris, law school, Washington. Revenge, reward, adultery, closeted homosexuality, duplicity, family dysfunction, justice; what more could you ask for?  Network or cable, it fills a lot of gaps.  Once again – what am I missing here?

Life Lessons for Writers:  If it was yours to sell in the first place, sell it again. Someone out there is just waiting for the opportunity to prove that the last regime made the wrong choices.

Conversation with the Writer:

Mills: I hadn’t looked at this script in a really long time when I got word that you wanted to write about it. I think the dialogue could have been better and maybe I could have made it a bit less confusing, but overall I think there’s a great show in there. So thanks for making me revisit it and thanks for expressing such confidence in it.

Neely: How did this project come about?

Mills: I had pitched something to Fox Studios and they liked it; but when they took the pitch out it was passed on in record time by 3 networks.  Fox gave me a blind script as part of their commitment and I wrote “The Associate” for them. It never got off the ground but it will come back to me in April.

Neely: Maybe they were worried about the 100 stories.

Mills: Don’t know.  I only took it to the 4 broadcast networks.  I should have taken it to cable.  I sort of soured on the whole process and went back to the feature world that I understood better.

Neely: The bar for good legal shows (that was a terrible pun, wasn’t it?) is quite high and you jumped over it with this one.  I saw the influence of traditional legal shows as well as films like “The Usual Suspects” and “Inside Man.”  What inspired you to write this one?

Mills: I had done an adaptation of a non-legal John Grisham book – Bleachers – which, coincidentally had a character named Neely.

Neely: Let me guess.  It was a boy and his full name was Cornelius.

Mills: Right! Anyway, I wanted to know more about Grisham’s writing, so I started reading his legal thrillers. I thought The Firm captured lightning in a bottle. Why not do The Firm for television? Around that time I was also considering doing The Count of Monte Cristo as a feature, and that became my primary influence.  Structurally, “The Associate” is more like The Count of Monte Cristo than The Firm.  It’s about someone who’s one person and then he’s wronged and comes back as a different person to take revenge.  I also knew I had to add a procedural element.

Neely: Besides the partners, who else will Thom avenge?  After all, he can’t always undermine the firm’s cases.  I also loved the possibilities of uncovering the circumstances of the FBI agent’s death as well as the juicy details of what was being investigated.

Mills: Actually I had 70 people on a bulletin board that Andy had made while he was in prison – judges, DAs, cops, wardens, and then leading up to the clients of the firm in DC, all of whom were complicit in sending him up or keeping him there.  This law firm has files on everyone, much like the mob controlled law firm in The Firm.  Andy/Thom is a mole.  But there is ambiguity because a lot of the people he thinks were wrong, weren’t.  There are shades of gray.  He’s judge and executioner and sometimes the lines aren’t so clear cut.

The “A” story would be about The Firm; the “B” story would be The Count of Monte Cristo.

Neely: Who was this written for? Did you get any good notes?

Mills: As I mentioned, this was part of a blind script deal.  Their main edict was that it had to be procedural with soapy elements.  I wasn’t comfortable with some of the soapy elements, like the father/son conflict; the closeted homosexual; the home life difficulties. I would like to make it a cable show and pull back on some of the soap.

Neely: How close did this come?  Any thought on trying again with it or putting it into a different medium – mystery/thriller novel or even feature film (where the odds are just a slim if not more so than television)?

Mills: The networks passed on it very quickly.  I didn’t understand the process.  You just sit by the phone and wait to hear if they bought it; unlike in features where you have some interaction with the potential buyers.  I have thought of making it a feature.

Neely: But if you made it a feature you’d have to tell the story linearly and that would take away one of the most interesting elements – the back and forth between Andy’s ongoing learning process and the present day with Thom.  With a novel you could weave back and forth in time and be allowed a more expansive expository style.

Mills: That’s true, but I’d like to think I could sell it as a modern take on The Count of Monte Cristo. As for a novel, that would take at least three years, but, yes, there’s a lot I could do.  One thing that really annoyed me about television was the 6 act structure.  I was always being told that I needed to have a POW element before cutting to commercial.  It seems so arbitrary.

Neely: How did you get started?  I noticed that before this, your whole career had been in features, starting as Richard Donner’s assistant.  Let’s talk a bit about your beginnings in the industry.  What was the first job you got in the industry?

Mills: Working for Richard Donner was my first job.  In college, I went on an overseas program called “Semester at Sea.”  Chris Silbermann, now one of the heads of ICM, was a classmate and his dad, a senior marketing executive at Columbia, got me the interview.  I didn’t know anything about anything and started as Donner’s third assistant, eventually graduating to producing some of his films.  I left in 2000 because I had written and directed an Indie called “A Gentlemen’s Game.”  Richard was very helpful to me and I had learned as much as I could.  It was time for me to be my own man, which he encouraged.

Neely: Working as a director/producer’s assistant is usually more the path for a producer.  What did you do for him and how did that lead you to writing.

Mills: Writing was always my chosen profession.  Working with Richard brought me into contact with some really talented writers like Brian Helgeland, Channing Gibson, Al Gough and Miles Millar.  Brian wrote “Conspiracy Theory” and I was a producer on it.  Channing, Al and Miles wrote “Lethal Weapon 4.”  I learned from them.

Neely: It was quite a long apprenticeship.  How did that first screenplay assignment come about?

Mills: When I left Donner it was to direct a film, and the only way I would be allowed to direct was if I wrote the script.  I found a wonderful novel called A Gentlemen’s Game and that was the start of my writing. It was financed through private equity.  I raised the money and made the movie.  Then I wrote a second script called “August and Everything After” that was supposed to be my second film.  The script was very well received but I still haven’t found the funding.  I just haven’t been able to put the whole thing together.   Annette Benning and Pierce Brosnan were interested in starring.  In any case it helped me get my agents.  It’s also when I realized that I needed a career and was able to get some writing assignments.  The Grisham book, Bleachers, was my first assignment and then I was well on my way making a living as a writer.

Neely: I noticed that you have quite a few scripts in development.  How many are on the cusp of production and what is in development hell.

Mills: “Wonderful Tonight” is pretty active and so is “Playing for Pizza,” another Grisham adaptation.  “Bleachers” is stalled because it was with Revolution Studios and it took quite a while to extricate it.  Phoenix Pictures is now trying to put it together.

Neely: Are you still interested in developing for television?

Mills: Yes.  I’ll just have to approach it differently.  I’ll definitely jump in this year. I think my writing has definitely improved since I wrote that draft - or at least I'd like to think that my writing is taking that arc. I’m glad you prodded me into reading “The Associate” again.  I know just how to do it better this time.

Neely: How do you view the writing process overall?

Mills: I’ve had a good run and I hope it will keep going.  I have real hopes for getting “Wonderful Tonight” off the ground.  Christine Jeffs has come on board to direct and we’ve had some great meetings. She did “Sunshine Cleaning.” I’ve written 14 or 15 drafts of “Wonderful Tonight.” There are some scenes I’ve gone over hundreds of times. I really love this piece.

Neely: So are you still in touch with Chris Silbermann?

Mills: We fell out of touch over the years but we’re going to reconnect soon.  I just got an email from another friend from the “Semester at Sea” who has proposed a reunion.  So it’s going to happen.  I think of Chris’ father so often; he was such a talented and generous man.

Neely: Let me know how it goes. Maybe there’s a script in this reunion.

Tomorrow I will be posting an article on Baseline Studio System entitled "Women Can't Create and White Men Can't Jump." This year's pilot season has been horrible for women writers.  Please read and let me know what you think.

http://www.blssresearch.com/research-wrap?detail/C7/women_cant_create_and_white_men_cant_jump

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"Roger Ailes, the head of the Fox News Channel, is denying reports that he sent President Bush a letter giving him advice on the war. In his own defense Ailes said I'm not in a position to give anyone advice, I hired Geraldo." - Conan O'Brien


What: NBC has decided to do a low-budget equivalent of “On the Road” but their reporter is no Charles Kuralt.

Who: Extraordinarily self-impressed and ambitious, Steve Goodman worked his way out of his dirt-water anchor existence in Scottsdale by being in the wrong place at the right time during the 1995 Mexico City earthquake where he hires a cameraman to film him crawling out of rubble; and then again and again until he gets it right, complete with tear tracks on his dust encrusted face.

 

Steve: Lot of dust down here. (then) My dad died when I was seventeen.  He was a fireman. There was five alarm fire downtown and a woman told him her kids were still in the building so he went back in, even though the building was about to collapse. But there was nobody in there. She was mentally ill and who knows why she told him that.

Tears start streaming down his face, leaving tracks through the dust. There’s no attempt to cover them this time. Even his cameraman has a hard time keeping it together.

Steve: (cont.) At his funeral, the pastor said that you don’t get to choose how you’re going to die, you only get to choose how you’re going to live. He said, “Choose a life that’s filled with integrity, compassion and courage. Because in the end, what matters isn’t your success, but your significance.” My dad chose that life. I’m not sure I did, but I hope you’ll think I tried my best.

Steve panics as an aftershock rumbles.

Steve and his cameraman emerge from the rubble of the building quite easily. He angrily approaches two Mexican men and a young boy about seven who is covered in dust.

Steve: Look, José, I paid your kid five bucks to crawl in there and find me a safe spot that would—

Mexican Man: (interrupting) I’m Felix, he’s José.

Steve: You’re all José, okay?! (then) Do you have the video camera?

Mexican Man: Sí.

Steve: In English, José. This is American TV.

Mexican Man: Yes.

Steve: Okay. I’m going back in there. I’m going to dig myself out by hand. Make sure you get it on tape. I don’t want to have to do this twice.

As they head back towards the mountainous pile of debris…

Steve’s Cameraman: Hey, Steve, I’m really sorry about your dad.

Steve: What? Oh, that happened to a buddy of mine. My old man died in a bar fight with a dwarf. (claps his hands together) Alright José! Let’s make some magic!

From that point on, Steve’s career was strictly on an upward arc, from the covers of Time, Vanity Fair, and billboards that proclaimed: “Steve Goodman. The Most Trusted Name in News.”  Until an errant mike left on after the end of a broadcast caught Steve proclaiming that

“…people in Arkansas consider fifth grade to be their senior year…they think “Deliverance” was a documentary.”

Not known as a one-trial learner, Steve’s seemingly sincere, tear-stained on-air apology to the great state of Arkansas is undermined when, again off camera,

"…Jesus! I’m apologizing to people who pronounce the word “cat” with three syllables."

By the time Steve is summoned to the office of the news division president, Wayne Julius, his newest comments, captured by a disgruntled stagehand, had already gotten 2 million hits on YouTube.  Despite his numbers, his Emmy and his status as one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Fascinating People, Steve is summarily canned and blackballed.

Unable to find work anywhere, Steve gets wind of a new Sunday morning show that Wayne will be launching and convinces Wayne to give him one more chance. This ends up being one of those “be careful what you wish for” situations because Steve will now be living on a bus, going to jerk water towns, taking orders from a producer who was once his very sexually harassed intern, and anchoring a show where they “pick a name at random out of a digital phone book of the United States” presumably because everyone has a story to tell.  First up, Eleanor Johnston, 90s, resident of the Walhalla, South Carolina Nursing Home.  Grandmother of the racist governor, Eleanor has quite a story to tell about how she kept her family afloat during the depression. The governor is not amused but Steve has climbed one step out of the ravine, with many more to go.  Next stop:  Fayetteville, Arkansas.

 


 

No Meaner Place: To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports on the death of the half hour comedy have been greatly exaggerated; well, at least as far as what’s out there in script form.  Bernstein’s premise and set up are exceptionally strong with an opening that grabs, surprises and amuses the audience.  The staged “rescue” is straight out of Geraldo and the portrait of Steve as an anchor is everyone’s vision of the local news pretty boy.  But giving the story a surprising level of depth is that Steve, though totally egocentric, oblivious and disloyal, is no Ted Baxter; he actually knows what he’s doing, he’s just too vain and arrogant to do anything but coast and believe his own press.  There is originality in the premise as this is both a “fish out of water” story, as well as one of redemption, with a heavy dose of cynicism.

Bernstein’s strongest suit may be his crisp, laugh-out-loud dialogue.  Upon meeting Booey Maguire, the new show’s bus driver/cook/handyman:

Steve: Hey, how’s it going?

Booey: I’m thirty five years old, I’ve got two masters degrees and I drive a bus.  How do you think it’s going?

Steve: Nothing wrong with driving a bus.

Booey: Really?  Wow. I feel so much better now.  Like my life has purpose.  Thank you.  I can’t wait to tell my family.

Most of us are Booeys, wingmen for the Steves of the world.

 

Life Lessons for Writers:  Lead with a joke; end with a joke.

"According to the New York Daily News, Geraldo said he is now carrying a gun, and he will personally shoot Osama bin Laden if he finds him. If Osama also has a gun, this could work out okay." —Jay Leno

Conversation with the Writer:

Neely: Jack, as you know, I was a huge fan of this pilot when I read it at David E. Kelley Productions and your manager Ross was trying to get us to produce it.  Unfortunately that didn’t work out.  So did you take it to anyone else that year?

Jack: No.  I wrote the script during the strike and when the strike was over, David was the first to see it.  Then I ended up on “Monk” and was contracted to USA.  I could do features, but not TV as long as I was working on “Monk.”  I wouldn’t have been able to anyway because “Monk” took 100% of my time. Even if I had been able to set it up elsewhere, I was on set 65-70 hours a week.  I just couldn’t have done anything else.

Neely: That’s pretty all encompassing!

Jack: So the script just kind of hung around.

Neely: What about this year?

Jack: I had a two week window of opportunity between the end of “Monk” and landing on “Royal Pains.”  I didn’t know it was going to work out that way.  In those two weeks it went out to the four networks.

Neely: Any bites?

Jack: They all passed.

Neely: This is so NBC or even FBC.  How did they react?

Jack: I have no idea what they said about it, if anything.  “No” is “no” and the reasons why don’t change that, they just annoy you. It’s just one of those things. It was sort of a “bad news, good news” situation:  It didn’t get produced…and…It didn’t get produced; meaning it is still theoretically still alive.  There’s the old saying, “Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard.” I can walk into a room of 10 people and point a gun at them and  all 10 will have the same reaction. I can walk into a room with the same 10 people and tell what I think is the funniest joke in the world and 5 will laugh uproariously,  2 will chuckle, 2  won’t think it’s funny and I’ll have to explain it to 1 person – usually my mother.  That’s comedy.

Neely: The hope is that an unproduced great pilot script could be revisited.  That is always the case in features, but seemingly never the case in TV.

Jack: I once wrote a spec feature that was passed on at Gold Circle and then a few weeks later the producer got it to the head of Gold Circle who read it and loved it and we set it up there.  I did two rewrites for the director and then it went into turnaround.  I have it back and I’m ready to take it out again.

Neely: Well let’s talk a bit about inspiration.  Was there any particular incident that occurred that inspired “What’s Your Story”? Was it something that you’d been mulling over for a while?  What triggered this story?

Jack: It was a collision of a couple of ideas.  This was a character I really wanted to do – someone whose incredibly successful career is based completely on a lie. He’s taken advantage of it, but then his true self comes out and he has to start all over again.  The basis for the show within the show that the character is doing has its roots in “On the Road with Charles Kuralt, “Everybody Has a Story” by CBS correspondent Steve Hartman, who took his idea from a journalist in Iowa who wrote a column called “Everyone’s Got a Story.”   I took it from all three of them.

I watched Charles Kuralt when I was a kid and I remember the shock I felt after he died and it came out that he’d had a mistress “on the road” all those years.  That disconnect was a definite influence.  But my guy is definitely not Charles Kuralt by any stretch of the imagination.

Neely: Let’s talk a bit about you and your amazing background and I’m actually not talking about “Ace Ventura Pet Detective”, which we’ll discuss later.  What I’m talking about is the fact that you are a very well established 1 hour writer who has written a slam bang ½ hr. comedy.  Didn’t anyone tell you that it’s only ½ hour writers who can transition the other direction?

Jack: I originally came out here to write ½ hour.  My dream job would have been “Cheers.” I was writing spec ½ hours, spec “Cheers,” and spec features. One of the spec features brought me to the attention of Peter Roth who was running Stephen Cannell’s company at the time. I got my first job in TV at Cannell who was doing “light” 1 hours. The first show I did was “Sonny Spoon” starring Mario Van Peebles; Randy Wallace was running the show and he’s now one of my closest friends. We both wrote features that came out within a year of each other.  He did “Braveheart” and I did “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.” You can see we have similar writing styles. A few years later, a producer I knew told me about a meeting he had with Cannell’s head of development.  The producer was being pitched a bunch of writers and he responded that they were all “TV writers” and then the head of development used Randy and me to negate his argument.

Neely: I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised by your foray into comedy.  You have credits in every genre – Sci/Fi with “The Dresden Files;” procedural with “NCIS”; and dramedy with “Monk.” Of course that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You’re on “Royal Pains” right now with a couple of my favorite writers – Jessica Ball who worked as a producer’s assistant and then the assistant to Scott Kaufer, the showrunning writer on “Boston Legal” the first year; and Jon Sherman (see the earlier article on Nomeanerplace about “The Compleate Pratt.”) who was a half hour guy who went into 1 hour.  How is the comedy infusing the drama on that show?

Jack: I’m actually surrounded by Jessica and Jon.  Jessica has the office on my left and Jon has the office on my right.  When I watched “Royal Pains” before I was on the show, I thought they had a great balance between the comedy and the drama, which is the hallmark of a USA show.  My goal is to not screw that up.

Neely: Any past TV experiences really stand out (for good or ill)? Can you elaborate?

Jack: I did a pilot with Steven Weber.  I love working with Steven because he is so talented.  It was called “The Expert.” It didn’t get picked up and is the single greatest disappointment of my professional career to not get that on the air.  And of course working with Tony Shaloub and the entire cast and crew of “Monk” was as good as it gets.  I guess another goal I have is to work with all the actors of “Wings.” So if you know how to get a hold of Tim Daly…

Neely: Why didn’t “The Expert” get picked up?

Jack: I think we chose the wrong network. We went to CBS and we probably should have gone to Fox, who also wanted to do it.  CBS had only one slot that year for a one hour show, it was on  Friday night and it went to a Glen Gordon Caron show that lasted one season.  It wasn’t their type of show.  Originally I had pitched it to Nina Tassler, one of the great TV execs, when she was at Warners and we sold it to CBS. I turned in the script to her and then didn’t hear back from her for a week. I was suicidal, thinking she hated it, my career was over, I’ll never work again, all those things that go through your mind. Then she called to say it was perfect and she didn’t have any notes.  She sent it to CBS and they passed.  I got the script back, then a year and a half later I had Steven Weber and Nina was at CBS and she said “Let’s do it.”  I don’t know what goes on in a network room when they’re moving their cards around on the schedule; but what are you going to do?

Neely: Clearly the elephant in the room, and at this point it’s a teenage elephant, is “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.”  You mentioned it was originally a spec script.

Jack: It got lots of attention and most people loved it.  The place it had the most traction was at Paramount.  I actually got a hold of their coverage – I couldn’t have written a better or more glowing coverage myself.  At the top of the page it said “Fast, Fresh, Funny”; and then at the bottom it said…”Consider.”  Consider?? What’s a Recommend?  A lot of things have to fall into place to get a film off the ground.

David Nicksay at Paramount was a huge fan but he couldn’t get them to buy it.  About 6 months to a year later he left Paramount to become President of production at Morgan Creek.  “Ace” was either the first or second project he bought for Morgan Creek.

Neely: Wow! What a money maker that was for them!

Jack: Not according to their books.

Neely: I’m convinced that these guys keep 2 sets of books like the mob.  One for the shareholders and another for the creatives.

Jack: There are probably more than 2 sets. They put the Mafia to shame the way they do their accounting.

Neely: What was your original conception of “Ace”?

Jack: “Ace” was a combination of me wanting to do a comedic “Sherlock Holmes” and watching “stupid pet tricks” on Letterman.  My brother asked me what I was doing and I said a movie about a pet detective and he started laughing.  I asked him if he was laughing at me or with me and he said “a little of both.”  It was just something no one had ever explored and I happened to stumble into it.

Neely: What kind of currency did that give you?

Jack: Well, I sold a couple of features but none that got produced.  I’m not all that interested in writing other people’s ideas and I’m not interested in doing rewrites.

Neely: But isn’t that TV?

Jack: Not to me. TV to me…it’s part of it.  I draw different lines.  With features it’s one off.

Neely: I remember David Kelley talking about why he preferred TV and it was because with a feature it was over and done, but with TV he could continue to explore the characters.  You can do so much more with character in TV; you can continue to explore.

Jack: I feel the same way as David; he just says it more eloquently.

Neely: In looking at the credits on Studio System, I noticed that Jim Carrey, the star, and Tom Shadyac, the director, inserted themselves into the writing credits.  How did they change your original idea?

Jack: I originally wrote it as a straight drama.

Neely: Really???

Jack: No!  The great idea Tom brought to the table was changing the bad guy and his back story, making his motive personal. It was a great lesson. It’s better to have the bad guy have a personal motivation than a monetary one, which is what my original bad guy had.

Neely: How did the final credits read?

Jack: Story by Jack Bernstein; Screenplay by Jack Bernstein and Tom Shadyac & Jim Carrey.

Neely: Can you share any experiences, pratfalls, heartaches, joy from that film?

Jack: It was good and bad.  I spent time on the set and Tom Shadyac, in addition to being a great director is a wonderful person.  Jim Carrey was absolutely brilliant.  I’ve never been on a set and seen someone do what he could do.  He arrives on set and finds a piece of business to do that would enhance the scene.  It was astonishing to watch.

On the other hand, Morgan Creek is the worst company in town.  My bridges were all burned over there because I had the audacity to ask to be paid for the work I was doing (rewrite after rewrite). They were shocked because I was supposed to be grateful they were making my movie and why would I be entitled to be paid.  The minute I filed for arbitration my relationship with them was over. I won the arbitration, by the way.

Sometime around 1999, I was coming out with a new spec at a time when you could still 'come out' with a spec and go to lots of places, etc. Anyway, Morgan Creek caught wind of it and their Senior VP of Production who was a friend and with whom I still am friends, asked me to lunch.  And we had a good time and all, then as we were leaving, in the parking lot, he said, somewhat embarrassingly, 'I gotta ask, I know you've got a new spec coming out.  Is there any chance we can take a look at it?' And my response was, 'Larry, if my children were starving, and you were the only company in town willing to read it or buy it, I still wouldn't send it to Morgan Creek.'   The post script to that story is that the script (“Mike Margarita Must Die”) got multiple offers on day one. I sold it to United Artists and I was attached to direct (not that I have a burning desire to direct but I did have a burning desire to shave 2-3 years off the development cycle); I did one rewrite for them which they loved; we went out to actors; then UA. was collapsed into MGM.  The head of UA lost her job, and the script went into turnaround.

Neely: So what’s next?  Is there still life in the pilot?  If it’s only timing, maybe there’s another time?

Jack: Right now I’m noodling a new spec pilot.  I’m backing into the bad guy – using the lesson of making it personal instead of about money.  When I drive to work I think about it. I have the bones to it, but I’m still moving some pieces around.  And of course, there’s Royal Pains, which so far has been a fantastic experience and I’m looking forward to starting production in April.

Neely: I love your writing and I hope to see more. I’ll be sure to catch the next season of “Royal Pains.”  And please send me your favorite unproduced feature.

I’ve posted a new article on pilot writers.  Please take a look.

http://www.blssresearch.com/research-wrap?detail/C7/where_have_all_the_women_writers_gone_long_time_passing

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“History repeats itself, and that’s one of the things that's wrong with history” – Clarence Darrow (former Youngstown resident)


Who: Frank Dante lives in Youngstown, Ohio; he’s always lived in Youngstown – on both sides of the law, although the lines are quite fuzzy.

What: Youngstown, as is well known, is a mob town; always was and as far as the last remnants of gangsterdom are concerned, always will be.


Along the Mahoning river – Day

First pan the rusted out blast furnaces, and empty mills lining the river. Then the river itself, clean, peaceful.

Frank: (V.O.) The problem is, “clean” never worked in Youngstown. Especially in regards to steel. Dirty water meant everybody had a paycheck and the mills were pumping it out.

Back on the mills.

Frank: (V.O.) Five million tons annually. That’s enough steel to fill one million freight cars, twelve thousand miles long... Ships, planes, cars, bridges, all molded out of the steel from these mills... But that’s not what people remember...

Ext. A driveway in a Youngstown suburb – Morning

A man exits his house on his way to work. He spots his neighbor, smiles and waves good morning, then gets in his car.

He puts the key into the ignition and starts it. The car explodes.

Frank: (V.O.) That’s what they remember... Welcome to Youngstown.

 

Frank Dante, formerly a detective on the local force, fired under a cloud of suspicion but still highly respected in town, now runs a restaurant, the “Two Deuces," not even marginally successful; but all of his previously crushed dreams are stored there.  Before the steel mills shut down, Frank’s father, now deceased, ran the restaurant and catered to the neighborhood – now there are no steel mills and the neighborhood, such that it is, has seen far better days. In order to make ends meet, Frank allows an after-hours club aka craps parlor to flourish in the back room. For Frank, it’s a stopgap so he can pay off his debts and put the restaurant back on firm footing; for Frank’s younger brother Joey, it’s his life. Joey, equipped with only half a deck and the deck is marked, revels in being a big man in this mob controlled town. Frank, determined to shut down the operation, especially when one of the town’s many crooked cops comes for a pay-off, informs Joey that the club will close at the end of the week. Joey is less than pleased.

Fred Ruffing, a high ranking cop who was resentful of Frank when he was on the force, is even more resentful of him now. Ruffing hasn’t dropped by for a chat; he’s arrived, palm wide open, for his share of the “club.” The squeeze on Frank is from both sides of the law – Ruffing, on the one hand, and the Debrasios on the other; although in Youngstown, it all seems to be the same dirty side. But Frank has only just tapped the keg of misfortune. Into the bar walks his deceased sister’s ex-sister-in-law Helen. In tow behind her, carrying the sum total of their possessions in a couple of cheap suitcases, are Frank’s niece Annie, 14, and tough guy nephew Angel, 16. Helen’s tired of babysitting her brother’s kids and deposits them with Frank. Their father Angelo is due to be released from the slammer in 6 months and now it’s Frank’s turn.  Not waiting for the negative response that will come from Frank, Helen disappears as quickly as she came.  Annie, beautiful, psychically wounded and unable or unwilling to communicate relies on her brother Angel for protection; Angel, armed with the bravura of the macho teen has good protective instincts and bad judgment on how to use them – especially when he decides to take on one of the local mobsters attempting to molest his sister. Even at 16 you can become a marked man.

But before Frank can contemplate “fatherhood,” Angelo, his ex-brother-in-law arrives, having been released early from prison. Annie’s terror at the sight of her father and Angel’s undisguised anger and disgust immediately eliminate any relief Frank might have felt; protective instincts he didn’t know he had, kick in as he tries to decide what’s best for the kids.

When two FBI agents arrive at the club, it’s just the cherry on top for Frank. But they don’t want to close him down.

FBI: How about you and your brother sit down with me?

He doesn’t wait for a response. He takes a seat at a bar table. Frank follows, nodding to Joey to do the same. Joey sits.

FBI Guy: Cute name, the Inferno... Dante’s... I get it...

Joey reacts as if it’s curtains.

Joey: Okay, let’s cut the cute shit. You gonna bust us, then bust us!

Frank shoots him a look to shut up.

FBI Guy: Actually I wanted to tell you how helpful the club’s been to us. We’d like to use it for surveillance...

Joey has a confused look on his face. Frank winces. He knows what’s coming.

Joey: You’re not going to bust us?

FBI Guy: Actually, we’ll bust you if you close it.

It’s Christmas for Joey. He can’t believe it.

Joey: Yes!... I love you! No shit, I love you... You want a steak? Have two...

Frank doesn’t feel the same.

Frank: So, we’re supposed to be your rats?

FBI Guy: No. You just have to keep the doors open. That’s all. We’ll do the rest.

Joey: (to Frank) What’s so hard about that?

The FBI Guy’s cell phone rings. He sees who it is, signals to the brothers that he’ll be back, then moves to the bar to take the call.

New angle – Joey and Frank

You can’t wipe the smile off Joey’s face as he looks at his brother and rubs his fingers together, indicating lots of cash ahead. Frank isn’t smiling.

Joey: I’m sorry, Frankie. Now we can’t be broke and destitute like you wanted.

Frank: Now we gotta pay off Ruffing and the Debrasios.

Joey: Who gives a shit? It’s worth it.

Frank studies Joey for a long beat, then looks over at the FBI guy. Something registers. He heats up.

Joey: What?

Frank: Did you think I wouldn’t figure it out?

He quickly gets up.

Joey: Frankie, I don’t know what –

Frank: Shut up!.. You tipped off the FBI and made a deal...

Joey is silent for a long beat. Then:

Joey: We need the money, Frankie!...

Frank wants to rip his brother’s head off, but remains frozen in one spot.

Frank: I’m your brother!

Betrayal lays in wait for Frank at every turn and Joey, short sighted and greedy, has turned him into a snitch; and in this mob-controlled town, there is a clear-cut expiration date on the life of a snitch.

 

No Meaner Place: “Welcome to Youngstown,” sharp, incisive and cynical should have been some network’s follow-up to “The Sopranos.With elements of the Michael/Fredo conflict from “The Godfather Part II,” police corruption straight out of “Serpico” and family drama with hidden secrets, depth and room for character growth, I just don’t see any major shortcomings (actually, I see very few minor ones).  Characters are well developed and LoGiudice has thoroughly created the world in which they live.  Frank Dante is the kind of complex, interesting and conflicted character on which shows should be based and rarely are so many different story threads intriguingly jumbled; none resolved but all tantalizingly left to dangle and live a 100 episodes.  This is family drama in the most diverse sense – Frank, Angel and Annie; Frank and his co-workers at the restaurant; Frank and Joey; and, of course, “the Family.” Like so many excellent stories, “Welcome to Youngstown” is as fresh today as it was when it was written, as it was when it was first considered.

Life Lessons for Writers: Here today, gone here tomorrow.

Conversation with the writer:

Neely: I’m curious about the choice of Youngstown, Ohio as a setting. Any personal history?

Jack: I’m Italian and I grew up in Youngstown. Youngstown, when I was growing up, was the third largest steel producing valley in the United States. It produced a substantial amount of the steel for the ships we used in the Second World War and the Korean War; it was a major manufacturing hub that went the way of the Rust Belt in the late 1970s when all the steel left the country. And once that happened, that was the demise of Youngstown.

Neely: Was your family involved in the steel industry?

Jack: No, my father was in real estate. He was very involved with all the people in the town – selling them their homes. All my uncles worked in the steel mills. When people would come into town, we would take them down to a district called Camel where you could see the blast furnaces at night. The people of Youngstown were very proud of the production that was being made there. At night you could really see how active it was. When those furnaces died, so did the town.

In so many different ways, it was really a fascinating place. As late as 2000, The New Republic magazine called it the crookedest town in America. I’m not sure it’s the case now.

Neely: It doesn’t sound as if there’s much of anything left to be crooked about.

Jack: You’re right. But the town was full of real survivors. We lived in a suburb, so I really can’t say I was part of that; but we were all proud of the town. You did hear a lot of bad things about Youngstown, but there were a damn lot of good things.

Neely: Let’s talk about the unspoken. I grew up in Chicago and was well steeped in its “history.” There was such a magnetic allure.  Chicago Heights, a neighboring suburb from where I grew up, was Capone’s South Side den (it’s where Geraldo discovered the empty safe – what an idiot). And I can still see the headlines in the Chicago Daily News when one of the last remaining Capone henchmen, Roger Touhy, was gunned down.  But I knew Chicago couldn’t have been the only stronghold, because sometimes Eliot Ness (Robert Stack) and “The Untouchables” went to New York.  I grew more savvy when I went to St. Louis for college and discovered that St. Louis was where the mob lived (on the Hill), so it was quite safe under the old adage of “don’t defecate (they used a different word) where you eat.” But Youngstown?  I’d never heard of Youngstown until I met my future husband who grew up in Las Vegas – now there was a Company town! He was the one who knew about Youngstown because his former girlfriend with a very Italian last name (actually fiancée, but we won’t go into that now... or ever) had moved to Vegas from Youngstown. Her father worked for the gas company and refused to have anything to do with the gambling industry; but her uncle... now that was a different story. Suffice it to say that he moved up quite rapidly in the casino business.  Ironically, of course, when her father died, her mother and slow-witted brother immediately took jobs at a casino and were lucky to escape with their lives when they were caught with their hands in the till. The fiancée? She’s lived happily ever after married to a pit boss. I’m surmising that organized crime for you in Youngstown was similar to organized crime for my husband in Las Vegas. It wasn’t spoken of, it was never in the papers, and he was almost entirely unaware of it (even though his Catholic high school was populated with the scions of casino kingpins and Murder, Inc.).

Jack: Can’t quite claim the same ignorance. There was definitely organized crime in Youngstown, but it just wasn’t talked about. My father, whose father was born in Sicily, spoke four languages and thought Sicily should be regarded as something other than the Mafia. It’s important to note that Youngstown wasn’t just filled with bad Italians. I hope Frank represents that.

Neely: Very long story short, I loved that you chose to intertwine the story of the death of one industry, steel, with the slow death of another, organized crime, in a town that was uniquely suited to tell that story.

Jack: I think that the death of both “industries” was very hard on the town.

Neely: You’re right because organized crime is an industry. Very much like St. Louis, they lived there, therefore they took their work elsewhere.

Jack: That is true. I hung around with a lot of people from Chicago and from New York. We were writers who met later on in life and all had similar stories. It was interesting to me, obviously I wrote this because of the dying town. I looked for a way to incorporate family that was now fragmented.

Neely: You have so many different families in there.

Jack: The story of Family is a big influence on me. I was really influenced by the portrayal of family by writers like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and by the darkness of Joseph Conrad. Youngstown was fascinating because so many people had an angle. They lived by having an angle, if you know what I mean. And when you get out of there you think the world is like that. When you leave and you go someplace else, like I went to New York, or when I went to college, people had different kinds of lives and weren’t living by an angle.

Neely: That’s definitely a way into the material. Everyone had an angle. I remember as a little kid visiting my grandparents in France and when I’d meet people and say I was from Chicago, they’d go “Oh! Les gangsters! It was assumed that being from Chicago meant you knew gangsters; and of course, especially by that time, it wasn’t that way at all (if, indeed., it ever had been). That’s just the old Al Capone history which was a very very  long time ago. Old habits die hard and Chicago, no longer “Hog butcher for the world,” was still tommy gun to the world.

Jack: Of course. I remember when Mario Puzo was on “The Tonight Show,” they asked him two places he would not go after writing The Godfather. He said Chicago and Youngstown, Ohio. That scared the hell out of me.

Neely: Well, it seems as if there was a transfer from a big city operation to a smaller city operation.

Jack: And boy was it bustling. When I was a little kid I got to meet John Kennedy. I remember standing on the top of a hotel marquis because he was speaking in his campaign for president. The people who owned the hotel knew my father and they invited us up. I got to shake his hand. It was a huge town then. Now there’s so much of it that’s been grown over with weeds. In so many ways it’s sad because it was so vital. I really want the town to have a rebirth. It deserves it.

 

Neely: Was this script written on spec or commissioned?

Jack: It was a blind pilot for Sony. I did a show for Showtime called “Street Time” about a drug dealer who was out on probation and his relationship with his probation officer. It ran from 2001 to 2003. When I took the job, part of the deal was to do a pilot for them. So in 2005 I wrote the pilot and this was it.

 

Neely: Who saw this and what was the reaction?

Jack: I think it was too dark for Sony at the time, and I was shocked by the reaction because I was sure that this was something I was going to be able to set up at a network. Sony never got behind it. But every job I got after that was a direct result of “Youngstown.” I got a pilots at HBO and NBC from this; “Sons of Anarchy” from this; and I just finished “The Walking Dead” for AMC.

Neely: I read that pilot and loved it.

Jack: “The Walking Dead” is based on the graphic novel by Robert Kirkman. I think it’s the number one graphic novel in the country now.

Neely: But “Youngstown” is yours again, isn’t it?

Jack: Technically it’s mine.

Neely: No, no. I mean that it should have reverted to you at this point.

Jack: Yes, it reverts, but if something happens with it, Sony would still get something, I’m sure.

Neely: I’m a bit rusty on this (and I’ve always had trouble with Separation of Rights – I’m told I’m not alone), but I think the applicable provision in the WGA Basic Agreement is Article 16. B. 2. a., Separation of Rights, referring to the reversion of material to the writer. My reading is that you would have the right to shop it again and the only (eventual) obligation to Sony would be the repayment of writer fees, and I think only those fees that are over scale, because they never produced it. I’m pretty sure that the WGA BA doesn’t allow them to recoup any of the “funny money” such as overhead.

Jack: I’m not sure how it works. My attorney would be able to tell me. But my agent hasn’t been able to sell it. I’m always thinking that someday it’s going to happen because it’s still fresh. But once “The Sopranos” ended, there was a little bit of a lull on Italians and I knew it would take a couple of years before that passed.

Neely: I think you should investigate this more thoroughly because, ironically, I think Sony does a better job, at least now a-days, of looking at the material that didn’t make it one year and going back and saying “what can we do with it now.”

 

Neely: What kind of comments and notes did you get?

Jack: It’s funny. I got very few notes on it. Everybody seemed happy. They were happy at the beat sheet; they were happy in the outline. The only thing they wanted was more of Youngstown, so I added a little bit in the front. It was the first time where I didn’t have notes piled on notes that I had to go through. That made me a little bit suspect, thinking they weren’t really behind it. I did have people there at the time who would call me raving about it, but Sony never went through with anything. They loved the characters; they loved the children and him; they loved his relationships. I think they would have liked to have seen more cops, as well as his relationship with the cops down the line.

Neely: It’s about developing and deepening the world. They always want everything right at the beginning. It’s ironic that they’re called development executives.

Jack: I’ve always felt that sometimes you just want things seasoned so that when they do reappear… you had a question about Angelo… well when Angelo eventually reappears, we will now have lived in that town and lived with the memory of him for so long that the color of Angelo coming back might be a little different to us because now we’ve lived with Youngstown. You always want to have Angelo in your pocket for him to walk back in that town sometime. I would have held that for a long period of time.

Neely: Obviously, like all good pilot writers, you had thought not of just the pilot, but of the whole ongoing series.

Jack: In my head I had this for 5 years.

Neely: You did an outstanding job of creating Frank’s open-ended world, but one of the tantalizing threads left dangling is about his former career on the force.  What did he do, or rather what went wrong?

Jack: We had talks about that at Sony at the time because we were going to put it in the pilot and then we didn’t because we thought it was better not to. It was their idea not to put it in the pilot and I agreed.

Neely: I completely agree with the decision but I’m asking because I’m curious. What did he do?

Jack: Here’s what happened. It was all over a friendship. He had to look the other way once for somebody he had grown up with. It was a favor to a mother, a woman who had been kind of a mother to him almost as much as his own mother. Her son had done something and Frank looked the other way and was caught doing so. I don’t have any real specifics in mind over what he did but I didn’t want it to be just Frank taking money; I didn’t want him to be all good either. You grow up in that pool of people like I did, and some of your friends go to jail and some of your friends become doctors. Sometimes you grow up with them and they’re almost like your brothers and what do you do? Cops are put in that position all the time, especially in New York; and that’s what happened to Frank. He had to look the other way because there was nothing in him that said “I have to think about the law here.” And that crushed Frank. It will turn out that that guy ended up being a bad guy and would have fucked him over. I’ve seen that happen time and time again where guys get into meth or go into cocaine and their lives turn around and they just become bad. I can think of two guys from Youngstown who are dead from drugs. I really thought they were going to have great careers.

Neely: You just mentioned a little bit about Angelo and it would actually make perfect sense to never see him again – but you clearly had some other plans.

Jack: You always want that in your pocket; you want as much story in your pocket as you can. Or Frank’s father; he’s dead and I’m sorry he’s dead but by the time the first year is over you’ll know a lot more about him. Do you remember in “The Godfather II” when Brando wasn’t there? The scene where they were preparing for the birthday?

Neely: The presents, yes.

Jack: Brando is so loud in that scene even though you never see him. And hopefully, I’ll make Frank’s dead father that loud. There is a restaurant on Market St., no gambling in the back but I remember watching these Italians working there. They’d suffer to try to get business because they were surrounded by Burger Kings but their customers were dead; they grew up, got old and died. Their kids took over and there’s nothing there; it’s a sad situation. It’s like in New York. There’s no real Little Italy now; it’s only about two blocks and they don’t even own that land. The Chinese kind of own all of it. But that’s because the kids grew up and the real estate got very valuable – there was much more money to sell it than to keep it. Now they’re in Staten Island or in Brooklyn.

 

Neely: I see that you’ve worked on “Sons of Anarchy.”  Clearly you are recognized for your ability to create a “home environment” for typically homeless groups. Where do you think that comes from?

 

Jack: I wonder what you mean by “homeless?” Are you saying that on “Sons of Anarchy” that these people join together because they have no other home?

Neely: That’s part of it. I’m not referring to anything like a suburban environment but they are nomads for the most part.

Jack: Yeah. As it happens what was always interesting to me was my friends who came back from Viet Nam. Their lives changed. Some of them had killed people over there and they could never talk about it unless they were talking to someone else who had been there. Suddenly they belonged to a club or fraternity, a secret fraternity, and they had this pain inside them because they didn’t know where they fit in society. I saw that growing up. Like when the mills closed and you no longer identify with something. Nobody had an identity. It was like “what do I do?” You collect unemployment. You’re lost because your father worked in the mills, his father worked in the mills, and you planned on working in the mills. The mills always stayed with me; watching that, watching people’s lives just disintegrate. Marriages fell apart. And growing up, it always felt to me like the female ego was stronger than the male’s in every regard. The man would fall apart and the woman would try to hold it together.

Neely: Do you mean ego or strength.

Jack: Both. Women had strong confidence, or at least they faked it pretty good; the male confidence just fell apart. I watched it fall apart; men had to have something to belong to. That’s really how motorcycle clubs started. It was after the Second World War, especially after Viet Nam. A lot of those motorcycle clubs came out of Viet Nam. Kurt Sutter, the creator, and John Linson, the producer, did a really good job of studying that culture.

Before that, there was “Street Time” about a guy out of prison who had been a major dealer. He comes out of prison and he’s no longer big time on the street anymore. He has no identity. People say they want to mold him into society but he used to be able to walk down the street and give children money. He was delusional in the sense that he thought he was all good. For these guys, this was their life and they don’t know who they are anymore. They’re supposed to get a job and get along with society and nothing makes very much sense. To them a motorcycle club makes perfect sense. It’s like being in the army makes perfect sense to some people. At least there’s a regimen, something that is consistent in their life. Kids that I knew whose parents broke up, they really didn’t have “familia.” I had a sister and  brother and something like 15-20 cousins and at least I knew where I could go to kind of feel at home once my father died.

Neely: How old were you when your father died?

Jack: 21. He was a major influence on me. With him I felt that the world was my oyster, there were endless possibilities. That stayed with me – he had this kind of Zorba magic about him. He was also a great storyteller and I’m sure that that’s part of everything for me – wanting to be like him.

Neely: There’s so much more to talk about that I want to roll the rest of this conversation to a Part II. We’ll continue with more of personal story next week.

{jcomments on}

"When I read the pilot 'for Married with Children', it just reminded me of my Uncle Joe... just a self-deprecating kind of guy. He'd come home from work, and the wife would maybe say 'I ran over the dog this morning in the driveway'. And he would say 'Fine, what's for dinner?'"– Ed O’Neil (Youngstown native)


Part II

Neely: Last week we began a discussion of your fabulous, but unproduced pilot “Welcome to Youngstown.” This week I’d like to focus more on your own personal journey into writing and what has gotten you to this point, good and bad.

What do you think is your most unusual characteristic – as a writer, as a person? It’s like one of those yearbook questions.

Jack: (laughs) As a person, I’m a bad winner and a good loser. I’m an okay loser, but when I win, I’m just so competitive in games or sports, in everything. I’ll constantly let you know that I won. That’s an insecurity of mine; I’m not sure I can make sense of it. As a writer? I don’t know. I like hearing people talk and that’s why plays were always fascinating to me. I couldn’t get enough of the theater.

This is scary talking about myself. I’ve never really done that; it’s so personal. It’s easy to talk about characters you’ve made up; they come out of you somewhere. But Youngstown is personal.

Neely: Well one of the things that I’ve found is that everyone does have their own story. It’s interesting that writers have felt, and rightfully so, I suppose, that there hasn’t been an outlet for their own stories. For the ones they make up… absolutely. That’s what they do for a living; but personally, there hasn’t been a venue. I find these personal stories endlessly fascinating. I love getting where they come from and how they’ve gotten where they’ve gone.

Neely: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

Jack: It was late. I did terribly in high school; I must have ADD or something. I never paid attention; I was never interested in school. How I got into college I’ll never know. While I was in college, my freshman year, I was in an English class and we were told to read The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham and to write another chapter of it. So I wrote another chapter. My grammar was bad and my spelling was awful. I remember the professor coming over to me and saying “So your spelling’s an embarrassment, but this is what you should do for a living.” I thought he was just making fun of me. He had it all corrected and he read it aloud. And he repeated, “Really. This is what you should do. You hear people talk.” So that’s somebody who got behind me and suddenly everything in my life changed. I started writing, not very well because it took me a long time; but he