Thursday, March 07, 2013
Solving a writer's nightmare
It’s happened to me. It’s happened to most writers I know. It can happen to you. And there’s no flu shot you can take to prevent it.
So what do you do?
Well, all I can tell you is what we did and then maybe what we should have done.
My partner, David Isaacs and I had gotten a freelance assignment on a show called THE PRACTICE. No, this wasn’t the legal drama created by David E. Kelley. This was a sitcom in the late ‘70s starring Danny Thomas. It was essentially BECKER (except Danny had a son who was a Park Avenue doctor, while he was a neighborhood sawbones and much of the series conflict stemmed from that). The show had two things going for it.
1) Danny Thomas was a gifted comic actor, especially when playing a crank.
2) The show was created by Steve Gordon, who later went on to write and direct ARTHUR. No one wrote funnier dialogue than Steve Gordon.
The story we were assigned was that Danny (Dr. Bedford) got an Afro-American intern and one of his long time patients was uncomfortable being examined by him. Dr. Bedford was outraged, racially charged issues ensued, and tell me, if you can. where any of that is funny. But this was the story they wanted to do and we went off, approved outline in hand, to write the first draft.
We hit a brick wall the minute we pulled out of the garage. Although the story was a lovely little morality tale, gleaning comedy out of it was like getting blood out of a turnip or Larry King.
For three days we just stared at each other.
The producers were happy and gave us second draft notes. Even though the notes weren’t major there was just enough story restructuring to almost send us back to San Diego. We persevered and finally turned in the second draft. The series was cancelled an hour later. Our episode was never filmed.
I had such mixed feelings. For all the work we put into that damn script we at least wanted to see it performed. On the other hand, if our instincts were right and the story was essentially a downer, the table reading might’ve been a train wreck. And you know who would have been blamed for it.
We’ve used this technique of getting out of town and conducting marathon writing sessions several times subsequently. Most of the movie VOLUNTEERS was written over a four-day period in San Diego. The change of scenery is helpful. Being in a hotel room where there’s nothing else to do is advantageous. And it harkens back to those romantic days when Broadway shows would have out-of-town tryouts and the playwrights would pull all-nighters in their New Haven hotel rooms turning turkeys into eventual blockbusters. Forget how many shows closed out-of-town.
So that’s a helpful tip, and I recommend it.
But here’s what we should have done: When it was clear to us that the story wasn’t working we should have called the producers and expressed our concerns. We were young and quite frankly afraid to do that. After all, they had approved the outline. So the assumption was that the story worked, and if we couldn't get it to work it was only because we sucked as writers. If the producers wrote that same script it would positively sing. We didn’t want them to say to us, “You’re the writers. It’s you job to make it work! Do we have to do everything for you?”
In truth though, you save a lot of time and effort. And if your instincts are right they’ll see your point and call you back in to re-work the story. Or they’ll think it works as is and walk you through why. Maybe they’re right and you just didn’t see it in proper perspective.
But if you’re a freelancer or a staff writer and you absolutely can’t lock into the story, put aside your pride and fear and speak up. Better the producers get the call from you then from the stage on the first day of production.
Final note: We learned that lesson and several months later we found ourselves in a similar situation with a script for another show. This time we decided to call the producers. David got on the phone and said, “Hi, this is David Isaacs” and the producer (who sat with us in his office for three goddamn days breaking the story) said, “Do we know each other?”
So there’s no downside. You get your story problems addressed and if the producers are irritated that you called they won’t remember who you were.