Wednesday, March 02, 2011

I actually received this stupid note


This is one of those “what’s one of the stupidest notes you’ve ever gotten?” posts.

In the late ‘90s I was directing a sitcom that starred the junior senator from Minnesota. At the time, he was just Al Franken. When I see him on CNN acting very senatorial, it’s odd to think that at one time I was telling him, “stand over there”. But he was a pleasure to work with and very funny. I’m guessing he’s the funniest U.S. senator, although in fairness, I haven’t been in a writing room with Orrin Hatch.


Anyway, the series was called LATELINE and it was essentially a fictional version of ABC’s NIGHTLINE. You saw the behind-the-scenes machinations of a network news program. So we had very elaborate sets. A big newsroom, a control room with multiple monitors, and a TV studio. In addition to the four film cameras used to shoot the show, I also had four tape cameras to shoot the fictional show and provide different angles for the control room monitors. We shot this in front of a studio audience and for certain scenes that meant I had eight cameras rolling simultaneously. As a director, I was in heaven. So many fun toys to play with! And like I said, Al was great. Always on set. We never had to break while he went and voted.

After the first season, we shot the show in New York. Normally on the third day of production you have a big network runthrough. Reps from the studio and network attend and give you notes. But they were all 3,000 miles away. So someone devised a system whereby I would shoot the runthrough and beam it back to Los Angeles via satellite.

However, the regular camera crew didn’t come in until the following day to start blocking. So we had no cameramen and no one to switch from camera to camera. We were confined to one tape camera and that’s it. We brought in one of the tape cameramen and I gave him instructions to just follow the action as best he could.

I didn’t envy him. There were scenes in the newsroom with people spread way out. There were scenes that intercut between the on-air studio and the control room. The only way to capture even a portion of what was going on was to have an extremely wide master.

So I do my first network runthrough. Back in Los Angeles the executives are watching. The satellite transmission is up and running. We of course, can’t see or hear them. We have no idea what their reaction to anything is. But the runthrough goes pretty well I think. The poor camera guy is so far back he’s almost in a different borough, but that’s the only way he can show everything.

So we get the call from L.A. with the notes. The network honcho says, “Gee, I’d really like to see a few close ups”.

It was all I could do not to burst out laughing. What a fucking idiot! I delicately explained that when I actually shoot the show I will have four cameras and two passes, meaning I will cover the scene from eight different angles. None of them will be from the bleachers. That seemed to satisfy him.

But I can just imagine him going back to Burbank and reporting back to his superior that he saved the show.

29 comments:

Richard Cosgrove said...

That's pretty damn dumb.

The funniest bad notes I've heard are two a writer on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles said an exec gave him. Heard them on a Creative Screenwriting podcast (MP3 link).

They were about an episode that was set in the Terminator-controlled future, in which a lead character had been captured and was imprisoned in a Terminator-controlled concentration camp.

First note: How will the viewer know we're in the future?

Second note: What's at stake for the protagonist?

Mr. Hollywood said...

The best note I ever got: worked on A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, the film about a woman's baseball league. Put together a special one hour promotional piece for international use. The note I got from the studio: take out the baseball! A baseball movie and they wanted me to take out the baseball! So I did ... don;t even ask what the final piece looked like!

Anonymous said...

I know of the Stan Freberg tale of when the great producer David Merrick wanted to produce " Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America" as a musical. Merrick's note? " Ditch Abraham Lincoln. He brings the whole play to a halt"

Anonymous said...

It's nice to hear that Franken wasn't an asshole, espcially since I remember how much I enjoyed the show.

Nino Mojo said...

Friday question for Ken!

It seems Ricky Gervais really shocked in his hosting of the 2011 Golden Globes. Seeing some of the reactions, it seems people thought he was really really rude. I'm from Europe and I don't quite understand why some (if not most) of the stars and press take it so seriously. I have a feeling the same type of jokes, only directed at people who were not in the room t would have been totally acceptable.

I'm having a hard time knowing if this is an American thing, or only a Hollywood thing, or just a human thing? Those people are supposed to be among the American artistic and intellectual elite, and yet now they pretty much all seem like goodie-goodie uptight hypocrites to me, who can't handle a one line roast, despite the fact that they're all rich, hot and successful and they get praised all year long.

What's your take on this, Ken? Is the reaction to Ricky Gervais normal? Or should the stars and the press who were shocked really let off steam and be less uptight?

Sorry if this had been asked before.

Thanks!

Cap'n Bob said...

I always wonder if Franken is a senator or is just acting like one.

Bruce said...

I wrote my film school graduation project, about a hitman being stalked by Santa (don't ask). Anyway, we were shooting in Central London, in May. It was all nightshoot, snow machines, the works. When the budget went back to the head of the filmschool, the head of the school asked me, seriously, if I could rewrite it and have the hitman stalked by the easter bunny.

Chris said...

Speaking of notes! Try this experiment. Send a screenplay to some idiot who does coverage, then change the Title and send it back a month or 2 later without making a single change. Talk about comedy gold!!! The notes will be completely different and will most likely contradict one another.(probably, 2 separate college kids paid $8 an hour to read scripts for him and give coverage -- pathetic)

Maybe, I'll write a comedy called NOTES or COVERAGE!!!

Anonymous said...

John !!

Thirty years ago, the notes on network promos were often very difficult both to accomplish, and to take seriously. Not much has changed....

My all-time favorite was the legendary network programmng chief's note on the 1983 mini-series THE MAYFLOWER, starring, among others, Anthony Hopkins: "Lose the foreign accents"...

thevidiot said...

My favorite stupid note came from a guy who later headed a major network programming department: "Can we get rid of the little numbers in the bottom of the frame?" Of course it was burned in time code and would be gone if he would have just approved the damn thing!

I worked on a promo that later won a Clio - it was a still frame animation of scenes from a popular drama, dissolved in rhythm to the music. The note after the first cut was to "take the first part and move it to the second, move the second part to the third and move the third part to the front."

We protested that it was cut to music but they insisted that it was a "simple rejigger". So we did that and the note was: "it loses something... put it back the way it was."

Leslie said...

Its nice to know that there are bosses like this in all walks of life.

Mac said...

My friend made a documentary in China and got the note "I'm worried about the advertising - that man's everywhere, what's he selling anyway?"
There was a 'short straw' debate as to who would explain to the exec that "that man" was Chairman Mao. My friend wanted to tell her that "that man" was the largest noodle producer in the country, and had bought up all the hoardings.

D. McEwan said...

I loved LATELINE, and saw every episode.

Your collegue Joe Keaton's third novel, My Lucky Star, has a subplot in which a no-talent sends a studio a treatement for an "original" screenplay that is just Casablanca with a different title. He is flummoxed when the studio buys it, and he's stuck trying to find a way to write Casablanca without getting hoisted for lifting this plot well-known to everyone but the lummox who bought it. Very funny book.

D. McEwan said...

In Stranger in a Strange Land Robert Heinlein has the character Jubal Harshaw make a comment about editors that applies to network execs as well. He said (paraphrasing): "You have to give an editor something that needs changing, so he can change it. An editor will never like a story until he pees on it. After he pees on it, he likes the flavor better and will okay it."

Paul Dushkind said...

Do I have to be the only one to say it? It was not self-explanatory or clear why the preview was all in a long shot. The executive made a perfectly intelligent request to have close-ups.

Rick said...

The author of MY LUCKY STAR is Joe Keenan, not Keaton. (Not correcting D. McEwan so much as aiding anyone who might want to track it down)

Jeffrey Leonard said...

I am SO familiar with idiots like that station"executive" you referred to. At one radio station I worked at, when the ratings were good he took ALL of the credit. When the ratings were down, he told the owner of the station that we weren't doing a good job. He's dead now...

Music Director said...

There is a General Manager that "runs" a talk radio station, here in L.A., that once me that the reason our ratings were poor was because we didn't play enough AL GREEN. So, to please him, I added more Al Green songs to the playlist. The ratings remained in the toilet and we changed formats two months later. And he's STILL working in radio in L.A...go figure.

Anonymous said...

Leonard Stern, who produced several segments of the NBC Mystery Movie, wrote of a note he got from the network when producing the short-lived "Lanigan's Rabbi" segment:

"Can we make the rabbi less Jewish?"

gottacook said...

"Lanigan's Rabbi" (adapted from the Harry Kemelman book series beginning with Friday the Rabbi Slept Late) did have two actors playing Rabbi Small: Stuart Margolin (who was playing Angel Martin at the time on Rockford Files), followed by Bruce Solomon (best known for his Mary Hartman role). So perhaps the casting was indeed changed to conform to this network note?

amyp3 said...

@Mr. Hollywood: There's no crying in whatever this movie used to be about.

VP81955 said...

The Chairman Mao anecdote breaks me up. How can people so intrinsically ignorant wind up in positions of such power -- especially when they don't have the excuse of being elected? Old school ties? Ability to perform certain sexual acts? Who knows?

wp: "snouslim" -- the relative of the Mexican billionaire and New York Times owner who no one likes to talk about.

cadavra said...

The Chairman Mao story reminds me of the Republican spokesman who attacked Obama for egotistically creating his own flag--with a giant "O" in the middle. It was left to the rest of America to tell him that it was the Ohio state flag.

Sometimes I wonder how closely they read the damn things. I got one note from someone who wanted to know why two characters who were father and daughter didn't interact more. The problem was that they WEREN'T father and daughter, and there was absolutely nothing in the script to indicate they were related in any way. I suspect he had the TV on while he was reading snd something bled over...

Tallulah Morehead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
D. McEwan said...

Rick said...
The author of MY LUCKY STAR is Joe Keenan, not Keaton."


Aaaarrrggh!!! Where was my brain? My signed copy of the book was actually lying beside the keyboard when I typed that comment, and I still mentally short-circuted and typed the wrong name. Thanks for correctng it. Really. I feel highly embarassed.

And yes everyone, seek it our, all three of Joe's books are hilarious!

Carson said...

Ken,

Just so you know, Orrin Hatch does a version of the Aristocrats that make Gilbert Godfrey's sound like a Disney movie.

cleek said...

honchos are the same in every field.

in software development, when low level managers and developers are given really vague specs, their first instinct is to put together a rough mockup/demo of the product - the buttons don't really do anything, the graphics are rough, the colors are probably wrong, but the overall functionality should be at least represented. you can look at the mockup and see how things will flow and work together, etc.. you just want to verify that your interpretation of the spec matches the intent of whoever wrote it. but inevitably, when this mockup is shown to the honchos, the replies are "can we change this color?", "this button doesn't seem to work", "can we move this text box over 6 pixels?" honchos just don't get it.

makes me wonder if architects have clients, when presented with a scale model of a building, tell them "ok, is nice, but i need it to be big enough to park my car in. i wanted a real building!" ?

Johnny Walker said...

Lateline sounds a lot like Larry Sanders. Not a bad thing!

Pamela Jaye said...

LATELINE went two seasons??
Darn! I think I saw the first ep and gave up. I'm not sure what I was expecting. There's a fairly big chance that at the time, my ability to enjoy comedy had been spoiled by Zucker/Abrams/Zucker. Lateline wasn't the only thing that didn't live up to what I expected; I think Spaceballs didn't either (or - before Airplane! - The Ruttles)

So I'm an idiot. Somewhere I have a VHS tape labeled Lateline that has not one episode of Lateline on it.
I think that if it aired now, I would probably watch it for more than just the sheer parody I expected but didn't get - I'd be watching it cause I'm something of a production geek (nothing compared to my brother, Baylink, of course).

It all started back in 94 when I started writing a fanfic centered around an actor working on a sitcom. And realized I didn't know the first thing about working on a sitcom (or anything else on TV either). It's all been downhill from there.