Thursday, August 16, 2018

The one reboot I want to see

The reboot craze continues. There’s talk of ALF returning (thank God!) along with FACTS OF LIFE (dear God!). 24 may get a prequel. I guess the MAD ABOUT YOU reboot won’t happen, but as you all know there’s talk of FRASIER possibly returning to the airwaves.

Networks are basically admitting they can’t develop anything new. So I figure, since every show from television’s past is suddenly being considered for a revival, what about the series that began originally with a 49 share? Obviously America was in love with that show.

So I think one of the networks should do a reboot of AfterMASH. Let us finally get that show right.

First off, casting.  We need to go a year or two younger.   Liam Hemsworth for Klinger. Will Poulter for Colonel Potter. And we need to go diverse so Michael B. Jordan for Father Mulcahy. Roz Chao, who played Klinger’s young Korean wife, hasn’t aged a day in thirty years so she can still keep her role.

The show was originally set in a Veteran’s Hospital. What a goldmine for comedy that was! For the reboot we set it in the infirmary of a luxury cruise ship. That way we can work in a little LOVE BOAT action.

The show is still set in 1953 right after the Korean War (we must preserve the dignity of the franchise) but all the patients are in their 20’s and hot. The Korean War was brutal and only the handsome survived.

To ensure that the dialogue reflects the comic attitude and style of today, only Millennials will write the show. I may come by once or twice to explain what the Korean War was.

The stories will be more upbeat. Prosthetics is an area for comedy that bewilderingly was not covered the first time. Same with shock treatments.

Keep the haunting AfterMASH theme but just have KISS re-record it.

Whattaya think?

AfterMASH could be the reboot to end all reboots.

Literally.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

EP85: Meet Peri Gilpin of FRASIER


Peri Gilpin, who played Roz on FRASIER talks about the possible
FRASIER reboot, working with that cast, her career, and her dad who was a celebrity himself.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The one I'd take back

There was a good article in a recent NEW YORK MAGAZINE called “the One I’d Take Back.” They asked six comedians (like Patton Oswalt) which joke or jokes they’ve told in the past that now they now regret and wish they could take back. 

There are a number of scripts I’ve written I wish I could have back, but that’s just because with the benefit of experience I think I could do a better job. It has nothing to do with questionable content.

But the article did get me thinking back to my days as a wise-ass Top 40 DJ. Very rarely did I “get in trouble” because of things I said on the air. I was pretty good at walking that line. The biggest brouhaha I ever got into was on TenQ in Los Angeles in 1977. I was playing a commercial for a Donna Summer concert that was going to be held at the Fabulous Forum (then-home of the Lakers and Kings). I said, “today the Forum, in ten years Magic Mountain.” Someone from her record company had a shit fit and raised a stink. I was told to not make fun of Donna Summer. (By the way, I was right.)

What I did do was poke fun at recording artists on occasion. Believe me, I was not unique in that. Dan Ingram, Don Imus, Larry Lujack, Robert W. Morgan, Howard Stern, and others routinely teed off on artists.

So looking back, I mocked Bob Dylan. That’s still okay. I mocked Barry Manilow. Still acceptable. Mick Jagger – no problem. Psychedelic bands – safe targets. The Partridge Family – go to town. The Temptations? I’m a racist. I would goof on how hip they tried to be. But it made no difference. Had I known then what I know now, the Temptations would have been off-limits, period. I can argue that you needed to understand the context and I was an equal-opportunity-offender but that’s one I’d like back.

I’m sure these comics felt the same way – you listen back to some of the things you said that you thought were perfectly fine and funny and now you just cringe. Yes, comedy often offends someone, but in this case I offended myself. Fortunately for me, these were live radio shows. Unless I play you the tapes, you’ll never hear them. Thank God this was before Twitter.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

My thoughts on Mini-rooms

Networks and studios have found yet another way to exploit writers. Their latest brainchild: Mini-Rooms. Here’s a Vanity Fair article about it.

When a network orders a pilot for a short series (6-13 episodes) they now put together a small room of baby writers for two or three weeks to come up with future stories and/or scripts. If the show is then picked up they already have a lot of the stories broken and writing completed.  They don’t have to hire a full room of writers and even if they do there’s now less work to be done so the time frame is less and the network or studio is in an advantageous bargaining position.

So writers are hired on the cheap. And in a business where stability continues to dangerously shrink, TV staff jobs start seeming like four-week freelance assignments. Writers have to cobble together a bunch of these a year to survive. And getting any TV writing job is harder these days. Way more hoops. You have to be approved by the network and the studio and pod producers. Generally it takes meetings with three or four entities before a writer is offered even an entry-level job.

Can the WGA stop this? Not really. The networks/studios have found a loophole. They’re paying Guild minimums to these Mini-room baby writers (who understandably are just relieved to be working, even if it’s for the minimum and only for a couple of weeks) so they’re not doing anything strictly illegal.

And who is there to safeguard and protect writers from this insidious practice? Well, it should be agents. That’s their job. They could fight to ensure their clients got proper above-scale compensation. So why don’t they?  Because commissions are no longer their primary source of income.  In this new conglomerate world agencies now survive by making package deals and owning a percentage of shows.  Hard to fault them.  Everybody has to adjust to this new marketplace. But writers do receive way less protection than they used to. 

This is just another reason why the WGA wants to renegotiate their long-standing agreement with agencies.

Personally, I loathe the idea of Mini-rooms. If you hire me and my writing partner to create a series for you the pilot will be in our voice. We don’t need to enlist the help of inexperienced writers for pennies on the dollar. And quite frankly, it’s insulting to us that the studio/network would even suggest it. It’s like we can’t deliver a pilot on our own? We have to surround ourselves with help?

It’s one thing if you have a multi-cam pilot in production. Scripts have to be rewritten in one night following run-throughs. Putting together a mini-room for one or two nights makes sense in that case. But guess what? Studios/networks WON’T pay for those mini-rooms. Instead, writers have to rely on their experienced colleagues to come in as a favor, usually for a nice gift that comes out of the showrunner’s pocket.

And even that is now further exploited because writers are putting together mini-rooms to punch up pilot scripts before they go to the network. And those rooms are not compensated. In those cases I lay the blame squarely on the writer who created the pilot. First of all, where is his pride? Secondly, he’s being paid a lot of money to write a pilot. I get a free lunch in Styrofoam? I’ve helped out on a couple of pilots like this (not knowing the situation beforehand) but never again. And if I ever find myself in this situation in the future, believing I was helping out during production when it was actually pre-production, I will wish the creator well and go home.

Just remember this: All these changes in the system are designed EXCLUSIVELY to help the studio and network  and agency and save money. They are NEVER to benefit the writer. They are NEVER to improve the quality of the creative process. So pretty much anytime there’s another one of these new trends like Mini-rooms or Paper Partners you can pretty much bet that my position is I’m against it.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The JEWEL OF THE NILE timeline (and while I'm still haunted by it)

Got this in the comments section last Tuesday and thought, why not take a post to set the timeline on JEWEL OF THE NILE. It’s a re-post, but warning -- it takes a horribly tragic turn and is difficult to write.  You'll see why.

Unknown wrote:

Another recollection of 'Jewel of the Nile' from Kathleen Turner in today's NYMagazine:

Were you surprised or hurt at the way Michael leaned on you to do that movie?

That was a bad blowup. I had signed a contract to do a sequel [to Romancing the Stone] but the script for it [The Jewel of the Nile] was terrible. What had happened was that Romancing was so successful that Diane [Thomas], who wrote the original script, evidently asked Michael for what he felt was a ridiculous sum to work on the sequel. So instead, he went with these two guys and what they came up with was terrible, formulaic, sentimental. Anyway, I said no. Then I found out I was being sued for $25 million [for breach out contract]. My position was that, yes, I signed up for a sequel but I didn’t sign up to compromise the quality of my work. Eventually Michael and I talked.

How’d that go?

He said, “What would it take for you to do this film?” I wanted Diane back, or at least to give input. And Michael did go to her for some alterations. But ultimately I read the script on a plane to Morocco, where the film was shooting, and I was furious. It didn’t have what Michael said it’d have. When I got to the hotel in Fez, Michael and I sat down on the floor with three versions of the script. We were trading pages to get a script that was acceptable to both of us. It was, “I’ll do this if you’ll do that.” It was frustrating. But I do have to say, when I got sick Danny and Michael called and said, “If you need anything kid…” So they’re true friends.

[Don't know if the '2 guys' were you and Isaacs or Rosenthal & Konner, but interesting anyway.]

Diane Thomas wrote ROMANCING THE STONE and did a spectacular job. Practically everything you saw up on the screen – the humor, suspense, warmth, vivid imagination, that was all Diane.

She of course was approached to write the sequel but was tied up writing a movie for Steven Spielberg. So Michael hired the team of Mark Rosenthal & Lawrence Konner to do the screenplay of JEWEL OF THE NILE.

That was the draft Kathleen Turner had trouble with, as did Michael Douglas.

At this point David and I were brought on to do a rewrite. We did a rather extensive one, primarily trying to make sense of the story.

We also had a time crunch. In order to start filming in Morocco, their government had to approve the script. And the script needed to be translated into French, which would take a few more days. Additionally, there was the threat of a Writers Guild strike so we were pushed pretty hard to finish the rewrite quickly.

The hardest part of the script was the first act. In ROMANCING THE STONE, Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) learns right away that her sister has been kidnapped and she has to go rescue her. The story is off and running.

Remember the end of ROMANCING THE STONE? Jack (Michael Douglas) buys a boat and as a grand gesture presents it to her in Manhattan and the take-away is that they’re going to sail around the world together and live happily ever after.

So now we pick them up in the sequel. They’re tan, they’re sipping champagne, they’re livin’ the life. No more adventures for these two. They’ve got it made.

Except we need an adventure. And a reason for them to abandon the good life and once again throw themselves in harm’s way. Not an easy task.

We could say that they’re just bored, but that’s a tough sell to an audience that would give anything to trade places with them.

Anyway, we did the best we could in the time frame allotted and turned it in. Michael loved our rewrite but still had trouble with act one. Don’t blame him. So did we.

He called me at home from Paris on a Friday night to say he did something not entirely kosher (but producers do what they have to do to get movies made). He had called Diane Thomas and asked if she’d work with us on the first act. Were we okay with that? We were thrilled. These were Diane’s characters. Who knew them better than she did?

She was only available that weekend, which meant working Saturday and Sunday. We didn’t care.

Diane was an absolute delight. So smart, so inventive, so kind. We meshed instantly. It was a wonderful weekend and I was proud of the results. So was Michael and off the script went to be translated.

The Moroccan government approved it and plans were made to start filming in the late spring.

We moved on and accepted an offer to create a new sitcom for Mary Tyler Moore.

Michael called and asked if we could be on the set during production. Normally we would have said “sure.” Morocco wasn’t a picnic, but there was also the South of France. Plus, what a cool experience. But we were locked in to the MTM project and had to pass.

So Michael did what I thought was a strange thing. He hired the original writers, Rosenthal & Konner to be there for production. So what did they do? They tossed out most of our script and put their original material back in. I defy anyone to explain the plot of JEWEL OF THE NILE.

Okay, here comes the truly horrible part. For helping Michael out that weekend he bought Diane a Porsche. A few months later, with her boyfriend driving that Porsche at 80 mph on rain-slicked Pacific Coast Highway, the car lost control and crashed. Diane Thomas and another friend were killed. Diane was 39.

That was 33 years ago and I will be forever haunted by it. I can’t drive PCH without thinking about her, I can’t see a Porsche without thinking about her, I can’t see a Michael Douglas or Kathleen Turner movie without thinking about her. I certainly can’t watch ROMANCING THE STONE or JEWEL OF THE NILE without thinking about her. And maybe now, if you do any of those things you’ll think about her too.

As a proud alum of UCLA I’m happy to say that the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program created the Diane Thomas Screenwriting Award in her honor.

You can understand now why I can't tell that story without tears in my eyes.  And why I'm going to end it here. 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

"What" writing partners argue about

Readers always ask if my partner, David Isaacs and I have fights when we’re writing. Sure, but the trick is to never make the fights personal. We can have a heated argument over a story point and then just go to lunch and discuss baseball. If we disagree on a joke pitch we’ve found it’s way easier to just toss it out, come up with something new, not waste a half hour on the argument, and result in someone being unhappy.

That said, we have had one disagreement that has been ongoing for literally decades.

I think characters should say “what?” occasionally when they hear a big piece of information and David thinks it’s unnecessary.

“I want a divorce.”
“What?”

“There’s a tank coming.”
“What?”

David thinks I rely it on too much.

“These apples are good.”
“What?”

Okay, maybe he has a point there. But I contend that people say “what?” in daily conversation way more than they even think they do. And to support my point, if so many people didn’t say it, then the expression would never have evolved to “What the fuck?” I’d like to think that through our scripts I helped coin and popularize that now-treasured phrase.

And I also exercise some discretion.  I never pitch "say what?"

So how have we resolved this sticky matter?

We barter.

David will say, “I’ll give you a ‘what?’ for two ‘so’s’.” Yes, this leads to other arguments (“I have a ‘what’ banked from Thursday.” “No, you used that ‘what’ Monday.” “But we cut that speech.” “It still counts.”), but on the whole this has gotten us through hundreds of scripts. And it’s an example of the kind of stupid shit partners bicker about all day.

And don’t get us started with when to use and when to use --.  The police were once called.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Great advice for ALL writers

This quote from the late Oscar, Tony, and probably Heisman Trophy winner, Mike Nichols:

Every scene is either a fight, seduction, or negotiation.

Now you could say he’s stretching it, and you could argue that at times seductions are negotiations, but the real point here is that every effective scene needs some dynamic.

Two baseball fans in the stands just talking about the weather isn’t interesting. Umpires trying to decide whether the rain is coming down hard enough to stop a World Series game is.

A couple agreeing on what color to paint the house is boring. A couple throwing paint at each other is not.

Your scene needs some conflict, or one of the characters has a specific goal. There’s a dramatic reason for the scene.

It may be subtle. People are always looking for that little edge, couples are consciously or subconsciously trying to be in the power position in their relationship. Although a union contract might not be the topic on the table, this is still negotiation. Trying to get someone to agree with you is a form of seduction. The truth is in our daily lives we use most of these conventions all the time in our interactions; we just don’t recognize it. But for writers, they're the fuel that makes the engine go.

Rule of thumb: if you can just lift a scene out of a screenplay or TV show, or whatever without anyone missing it then it didn’t belong in the first place. We’re in a golden age of TV drama. Watch the good shows. See how every scene, every moment has a purpose, and is integral to the narrative.

A fight, seduction, or negotiation may be a little simplistic. But it gives you a good starting point. If you’ve written a scene that is just flat you can check it against those three dynamics. If it has none, or one but very mild, suddenly it’s no longer a mystery why your scene doesn’t work. Pick one or two or strengthen one or two.

Use Nichols’ quote as a guide. It may not be perfect, but it’s much more eloquent than mine.

A scene has to have… stuff.

And that’s why he is who he is and I am who I am.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Friday Questions

Some Friday Questions to kick off your weekend.

Chris Thomson is up first.

I am probably wrong, but you never seem to put Boston Legal in your examples of excellent series writing.

Just wondered if there was history there or whether you just didn't rate the writing or acting?

Or you just didn't watch it.

I watched it and liked it. So no disrespect intended. A couple of my friends even wrote on it (when David E. Kelley let them). It was entertaining, but there are better shows. I didn’t even think it was David Kelley’s best series. There were a few years of THE PRACTICE that were way more compelling in my opinion.  

From Marty Fufkin:

If the proposed Frasier reboot does a Lou Grant and become a drama (which I think is a great idea) would you still be interested?

No. The big attraction for going back and writing for that character would be having the chance to once again write smart sophisticated TV comedy.

LOU GRANT was an excellent show but the character Ed Asner played in that show was not “Lou Grant.” He was someone else just taking Lou Grant’s name.

Christopher Lowery wonders:

Watched an episode recently with Colonel Flagg (Edward Winter-"Rally 'Round the Flagg, Boys'"-Feb 14, 1979) with the new ensemble/tone.

Was the style of writing/timing/anything different bringing a character from the more "zany" early few years of the the show?

What were your impressions of the final outcome compared to the character's early days of the show?

I think we did a pretty good job of keeping the spirit, tone, and humor of the Flagg character. We modeled our “Flagg” after the one Larry Gelbart established.

And I thought it worked. Flagg was such a fun character to write, but we were well aware that a little went a long way because he was so broad. So in the four years that I was with the show we only used him once.

And finally, from jcs:

In the first season of FRIENDS there is a wooden support beam close to the flat's door, in the left corner of Monica's kitchen. This beam later magically disappears as it probably blocked valuable camera angles.

Did sets on your shows ever lose certain features without explanation?

We had a very limited budget on the ALMOST PERFECT pilot. So for Nancy Travis’ house we just used Helen’s house from WINGS and re-dressed it. When AP got picked up to series we had to construct a whole new house. We kept the basic structure – where the front door was, etc. but suddenly her house went from Cape Cod to Craftsman.

Same with her workspace. It completely changed after the pilot.

We wanted to reshoot the pilot to make the sets consistent and Paramount just laughed. Looking back, we never got complaints from viewers.

What’s your Friday Question?