Monday, January 01, 2007

The "Stare"

That's the look. "The Stare". If you're a sitcom showrunner or producer with responsibility, this is you starting today. Until the wrap party you will have that "Village of the Damned" glassey eyed stare. (I imagine the same is true or worse in drama but my only personal experience comes from half hour comedy.) Any writer who has been on staff knows what I'm talking about. The holidays are over. The rest of the season awaits.


Here’s the timeline for a 22 episode full season. The staff assembles right after Memorial Day. The first few weeks are breezy, long lunches, catching up on who got what in the divorce, freewheeling discussions about the characters, foosball, possible stories and arcs, trashing THE OFFICE because you’re not on it, and usually at 4:00 it’s time to wrap it up for the day. There’s only so much OFFICE bashing you can do.

Pre-production continues mid June. Stories are broken and assigned. Staff members go off for a couple of weeks to write their drafts. Long lunches. Much bitching about not getting enough respect from the network. In your car by 5:00.

July – the drafts come in. They all need work. “What we were thinking with half these stories?” Only weeks away from production. Suddenly the realization hits: you’re already behind. No more off campus lunches. Work begins in earnest. Scripts are rewritten. Casting for guest stars and day players begin. The network wants some stunt casting. You inquire about Denzel Washington and wind up on your knees to Urkel. You have conference calls with your stars (who are in Hawaii) filling them in on the direction of the show and holding your breath that they don’t have “a little problem” with it. For the first time you utter that dreaded sentence: “Maybe we better order dinner.” Soon you’re working till 9:00. And the actors haven’t even come in yet.

August – The actors come in. Production begins. You feel like Columbus setting out to find the new world. Hopefully you have enough provisions, won’t encounter any perfect storms, and won’t veer so far off course that you wind up in Egypt.

The first few shows go pretty smoothly. You’ve spent a lot of time on those stories so they’re in pretty good shape. Rewrites wrap at 10:00. It could have been 9:30 but there was the foosball tournament. You hear that another show on the lot is already in trouble. Yes!! This helps you get through the month.

Early fall – things start bogging down. You hit your first rough script. Every season there will be at least one. It’s snake bitten from the first day. And here’s the thing – you can never predict which script it will be. Rewrites every night till 2. You look at the production schedule and for the first time that season think to yourself, “How will we ever make it?” You will forget that you asked that same question every year and every year you DID make it. But you set a goal. Just get to Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving arrives. You get a four day break. And you know you only come back for a few weeks until the holiday hiatus. Those December weeks are filled with parties, gift exchanges, calls from your travel agent, and three of the sloppiest rewrite nights of the year.

The Christmas hiatus. Usually two weeks. Sometimes less. And sometimes you have to write a script over the break (which you generally put off until after the Orange Bowl halftime show). Two weeks of relaxation, recharging the batteries, and hearing your relatives rave on and on about THE OFFICE.

And that brings you to today. It’s over. The hiatus, the Rose Bowl, even the cousins from Mizzou. The ship sails on. And it’s the last reel of MASTER & COMMANDER. You’re in now for that last long haul. Three months. No real holidays. In fact, no weekends off. You’re out of stories, have to slap them together in a day, gang bang scripts, one of your stars breaks his leg, the post production lab goes on strike, and that’s when you develop “the Stare”.

You’re past fatigue, you’re past fear, you’ve taken up smoking (because you’ve heard good things).

These next few months will seem overwhelming, impossible, back breaking. But the shows will get done. You will hit land. There will be hugs, speeches, and a gag reel.

And by next June you’ll be ready to start it all over again.

And here's the good news that you won't believe today but you will this March. Along with "The Stare" usually comes some of your best work. You won't know how, you won't even remember doing it, but you'll screen those last few shows and be so proud that facial expressions might actually return.

Full speed ahead!


Malachy Walsh said...


It also explains some of the expressions I see here in LA now and again.


Anonymous said...

Maybe we're lucky that we've only got 18 and we're out on the street Feb 1st. :)

Anonymous said...

Soooooooo, what you're trying to say is that any writer worth their salt should work in the same kind of trance that painter in Heroes goes into where his eyes cloud over?(The big H being optional, of course. Although... Heh.) Good to know! Thanks for that bit of sage advice.

Lilly Wonka

Anonymous said...

Still sounds better than:
Get up at 4:30 AM.
Spend 5 to 7 AM in bumper-to-bumper traffic driving 60 miles into town, because you can't afford to live closer to Los Angeles any more.
Arrive at factory by 7 AM.
Do the same damn repetitive task on the assembly line until noon. Eat that sandwich your wife made last night.
Return to doing the same repetitive task on that assembly line until 5 PM.
Drive home in bumper-to-bumper traffic for two hours to where the houses are still "Affordable".
Get shrieked at by harpy wife who is just home from her job at the soul-eating bank where she works, while you make dinner because she's too tired.
Listen to your kids bitch about school and nag you for money you don't have while you eat the packaged macaroni and hot dogs you cooked.
Realize that there's nothing but crap to watch on TV. Please let there be a MASH or a CHEERS.
Fall into bed at 10 PM.
On Sunday, sleep in till 7 AM, then get dragged to your wife's church that you pretend to believe in so your harpy wife doesn't yell at you more. Spend the day after church doing work around the house as ordered by harpy wife, who is sitting down because she is tired.
Do this for 50 consecutive weeks, then spend two weeks trapped in your car with your family, on camping trip to Yosemite or Carlsbad Caverns, while kids complain that you never take them to New York or London or Paris, like you could afford it. Then do another 50 consecutive weeks. Repeat for 30 years.
Never go to a doctor because you don't want to delay the hope of death.

That was basically my dad's life. He had the stare too. And he wondered why I didn't want to grow up to be him.

He loved MASH. Gave him a lot of laughs. He needed them. He'd thank you, but the heart attack he was courting dropped him like a stone in 1990, three years after retiring. His last medical exam had been on exiting the army in 1945.

That's what your job is for, making his bearable. That's why you're needed. For my dad, thanks.

Anonymous said...

I think what Ken is trying to say is that we should all go into screenwriting instead of TV writing.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the best Hollywood related gig might be script guru. The Field's, McKee's and Freeman's have several regular income streams:

1. Sales of books, CDs and DVDs on how to write for Hollywood.

2. Seminars.

3. Script consulting.

Plus, they also make money as writers. Now, most script gurus say they don't have that many credits on IMDB because they mostly option matterial and rewrite. Are they worth it? Are they right? That's a topic for another flame war. But for many writers caught in the cycle of cancelation or endless pitching to no effect, having regular revenue streams as a script guru looks good.

Anonymous said...

I'v got a friend who's working on one of the shows which premieres on ABC this week... They've been in production since August and every time I hear from her, she sounds like "The Stare" has already consumed her... I pray for her health and mental stability every night...

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Anonymous said...

First to Douglas Mcewan... I've always felt that what we do really came down to just giving a few laughs to people who REALLY work hard for a living, and your note really reminded me of that.

And second, a word of advice on McKee from a working writer to any novice writers. Don't waste your money on him. He's a pompous windbag who can't write screenplays that anyone wants to buy himself... and you have already learned what little he can teach you from having watched good movies yourself. Spend a fraction of the money you'd have wasted on his classes on some good scripts and see what REAL writers did... and then don't copy them... but use that information to develop a style and method of your own. There ARE no rules to selling a screenplay. Oh, and buy both of William Goldman's books. That's all you need, well, except for talent.

Anonymous said...

mcewan's comment sounds a lot like the theme of Sullivan's Travels...a great movie, for those unfamiliar.

Anonymous said...

That was a great column. I think I'll return to life in the theatre. No one much cares if you bore the blue-haired ladies at matinees.

EditThis said...

Funny blog today, and oh so true. Although, since my show is 20 days behind schedule right now, our STARE is a little more blurry eyed. And - the network has ordered 2 more for a total of 24. Wait till you see our eyes in June.

PS. Lots of foosball for us in July, too.

Murph said...

The Stare is way better than The Clap.

So I'm told.

Anonymous said...

Holy Hell. That sounds suspiciously like being a producer in the advertising industry. And I'm trying to get out of *that* and into *this*? Oy.

Anonymous said...

6:33 a.m. anonymous, best not to follow the word of McKee anyway lest you want to end up working on Barbie movies. I just IMDB'd him, curious about his past credits and his latest is as 'script consultant' for "Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper."

And right on regarding the Goldman books. That's entertainment and information from a man who knows.

Anonymous said...

I bought William Goldman's "Which Lie Did I Tell?" book years ago, and then never got around to reading it. I love reading inside industry stories mixed with some practical advice. I still have it in the bookcase in my bedroom. Perhaps I will dust it off this year and actually read the bloody thing.


ninjunkie951 said...

Nice blog...Screenwriting is something I stumbled onto a few years after graduating college. I'm not sure how great I would be at it being that I have a background in technology...I do have an idea for a short 5-10 minute movie which I plan on working on very soon...

Anonymous said... try to imagine you're the music guy on this maniac's show and need some's due tomorrow. Picture that overwhelming feeling of an overactive bladder you get while you wait on hold, as the writers asst calls the "owner of the stare" out of the writing session, freaked out, in over his head and comin' up with nothin', to pick up the phone and deal with a....................MUSIC QUESTION!!!!!!!!!!!!
Welcome to MY world!

Anonymous said...

btw...........Ken, fantastic article. It says it all!

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking maybe my spec script should not be for THE OFFICE?

Mapeel said...

Man, those "Village of the Damned" kids will show up anywhere. They are SO creepy. . . .