Friday, December 30, 2011

Regrets? I've had a few... or at least one

For some reason all the Friday Questions today come from people whose names begin with C. It would be really eerie if I hadn't just hand selected them. 

ChicagoJohn gets us started.

I love your casting stories.  It makes me curious; have you ever skipped over a performer, who later on became a superstar?

And if so, is there ever any regret that you didn't cast them?

We passed on Kathy Bates for Katey Sagal on the series we created for Mary Tyler Moore. It was a tough choice. Both were perfect for the part. But we went with Katey because no one had seen her before. And don’t regret it.  She was wonderful.  

Usually when we pass on someone good it’s only because they’re just not right for that particular role. But the one I still kick myself over, is not hiring Jerry Orbach when we had the chance.

Chris has a question and a follow-up

How much and what exactly do you write when you get a story credit and how do those situations happen where you just do the teleplay or story for an episode?

You get a story credit if you turn in (and are paid for) an outline. The length varies depending on the show. It can be four pages, it can be twenty. At that point the story editor can either send you on to write the first draft or cut you off and assign the script to someone else. Whoever writes that draft would get the teleplay credit. If you write the story and teleplay you get a “written by” credit.

But it can get complicated. If another writer is assigned to write the script and veers considerably from the story it could be up to an arbitration board to decide whether the original writer is still entitled to story credit. There is a credits manual that spells out the guidelines but like I said, it can get sticky.

And then there are shows like BIG BANG THEORY that are all room written and story and teleplay credits are just assigned.

If an actor ad-libs something and they keep it in the episode, does he need to get a credit for it (like producer)?


Charles Jurries wonders:

Have you ever had trouble editing scenes in an episode, just to leave one big scene intact? For an example, say on M*A*S*H* you had a great Hawkeye speech at the end of the episode, and there's not a line that you want or feel need to be cut -- but the episode is still too long. Do you trim the big scene, or, do a dozen little edits all over the rest of the episode? I know you've talked a lot about editing, but, I was wondering if you ever had to defend a special scene from the chopping block. Thanks.

Most shows, when first assembled, come in a few minutes long due to the laugh spread from the audience. That’s a good thing for many reasons. We then go back and edit and trim throughout. There are times we have to lose good jokes because we need to preserve something else – like a key speech.

As a director, in addition to everything else, I need to give some thought to possible lifts if the show ends up too long. So in my camera assignments I’ll need to build in protection so that lines can be cut easily in editing.

An example: If someone enters the room I’ll always have a single shot of him. That way we can cut any of the lines preceding his entrance. Or if there’s a half page of dialogue I figure might come out I won’t have actors crossing on those lines. That way, if you lift a line or two, the actors won’t fly across the stage.

Here’s one from Carol:

If you got the green light to do some kind of show like Sherlock, what would you do? And is there a type of script you've never done, but would like to try - like a Sci-fi type show or something? If you had the chance to write for Doctor Who, for example, would you take it?

I’m not a big Sci-fi type guy but greatly admire well-written dramas like THE GOOD WIFE. Would love to write something like that. Or a psychological thriller.

My partner and I did an uncredited major rewrite on JEWEL OF THE NILE and that was great fun writing an action-adventure movie. Maybe I’ll be considered for MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 16.

I’d like to write on any Aaron Sorkin show. I know I can’t write them as well but it would be an honor just to be heavily rewritten by Aaron Sorkin.

What's your question?  I hope it's okay that I won't get to it until next year. 


Barry Traylor said...

My question is this. How do I send you a Friday question?

Helena said...

The advice to people who are to write a tv spec script seems to always be "pick a new show that you think will really take off, but pick it before it actually does". I'm curious, are there people who do the exact opposite and pick shows that are long gone (but successful), like M*A*S*H? What impression would that make on a producer?

Tim Dunleavy said...

Barry Traylor said...
My question is this. How do I send you a Friday question?

The same way Helena just did.

John S said...

Ken, I'd love to hear the rest of the Jerry Orbach story. I always thought that when he did The Law & Harry McGraw, he was still acting in a Broadway theatre, send-it-to-the-last-row-of-the-balcony kind of style. By the time he got the role of Briscoe in Law & Order, he had figured out how to adapt for the camera

Anonymous said...

@John S

Except, of course, that Jerry Orbach had been on camera for years by that point, doing shitloads of great feature work ("Prince Of The City", etc.). He was hardly a novice. If he went big on "The Law & Harry McGraw", you can bet your ass that it was a conscious creative choice, and likely had as much to do with the direction received from the rest of the creative brain trust as it did him.

Orbach knew how to underplay on camera years before Lenny Briscoe was even a gleam in Dick Wolf's eye. Whether he did or not in a given project has everything to do with the direction he would have received at the outset.

Andy Ihnatko said...

Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant's book about screenwriting mentions an dirty trick: an unscrupulous screenwriter hired to polish the seventh draft might change the name of a central character, just so that later on, he can claim co-screenwriter credit even though all he did was make some basic tweaks and trims.

What other ways do screenwriters sometimes game the system to either get more credit or even just protect their contributions?

jbryant said...

Helena: I think I mentioned this before around here somewhere, but I've always heard that Larry Wilmore (BERNIE MAC SHOW, THE OFFICE) got his big break in the 90s by writing a MARY TYLER MOORE show spec.

John S said...

Anonymous that responded to me, you make a good point. They were probably going for something broad on Harry McGraw to match the style of Murder, She Wrote because it was a spinoff from that.

Orbach's low-key performance in Crimes and Misdemeanors was around that same time, and didn't he say Dick Wolf asked him to do just what he did in Prince of the City?

Unknown said...

Friday question (pardon me if you've answered this before).

Do you have any tricks to get over temporary "writer's cramp" ....Take a stroll, a shower or even a s**t?

Anonymous said...

@John S

I believe you're right about Wolf telling Orbach to go back to "Prince Of The City". I seem to recall one or perhaps even both of them admitting as much, albeit years after the fact. The funny thing is, apart from the essential Orbach-ness of the two performances, they aren't really *that* similar---"Prince Of The City" allows for much more menace in his characterization, whereas Briscoe is more of a loveable, sardonic curmudgeon. But I would imagine that it was that kind of lived-in, natural authority that Wolf was after, rather than a more flamboyant hardass like George Dzundza's Max Greevey was much of the time.

In other news, at the risk of sounding like a misogynistic Don Draper type, does anyone else think that L&O was a damned sight better in its first few seasons, with its exclusively male cast? My love of Lenny Briscoe was always tempered by my contempt of the token female ADAs they kept rotating in and out from that point on, all of whom, either due to the writing or the performances or quite often both, seemed to have wandered in from another, much lesser show. The recurring supporting players like Lorraine Toussaint's Shambala Green were often wonderfully written, formidable characters who were beautifully played, but pretty much to a one the regular female cast members were completely and utterly useless, and the show soon followed suit. Weird.

Collin said...

How do shows, once shot and edited, get to the network? Also, do they go to New York or LA? Did you ever have a show you work on have an episode get lost or damaged on its way to the network?

sophomorecritic said...

1. Can you still relate to writers who are struggling to pay bills and have to pinch pennies? I imagine after Cheers or Mary Tyler Moore, you were pretty set, no matter what you did. How did you stay hungry after that point?

2. The TV series Terra Nova was reportedly very expensive to make and produce. I know the show might not have satisfied ratings, but if they've already built the set and hired the creative team and actors (what seem like fixed costs to me), wouldn't it be most cost-effective to just round out a full season since you've already invested the money?
Also, what if Fox didn't reveal that the show was struggling or that they saw it as a failure? Couldn't that keep morale higher? A lot of people lost reason to watch it after they heard the show was being canned by Fox.

Tv Food and Drink said...

Well, I watch reruns of Cheers regularly. I also watched them in first run. I can't get enough. So get ready for lots of behind-the-scenes inquiries in the new year. That's one of the handful of shows that made me want to work in television growing up. Very happy to have found your site!


jbryant said...

Unknown: I think maybe you mean 'writer's block"?

Michael said...

About Law & Order, I would respectfully disagree to this extent: I thought it was excellent with the original cast and with some of the other casts. It seemed to me that Carey Lowell was excellent as the assistant to Sam Waterston, and Angie Harmon, though in neither's league as a thespian, did a good job with the role. I think part of the problem is that after her, we were subjected to 3+ years of Elisabeth Rohm's acting, then too many changes all around, and the inevitable effects of age on the show.

chalmers said...

I know my wife doesn't believe me, but I actually do watch the umpteen "Dirty Dancing" reruns for the Jerry Orbach scenes.

While it's from a wildly different genre, I think there is some common ground (the seen-it-all decent guy with some wry/sardonic humor) between Baby's father and Lenny Briscoe.

Johnny Walker said...

Andy, that's an interesting question. I have very limited knowledge and experience, but here's how I understand it, from all the things I've read over the years:

I don't think such "tricks" would work in real life. Arbitration is an involved process where the writers supply a statement and all drafts which they think support the work they've done. The arbitrator is a fellow member of the writer's guild, randomly assigned, and so I don't think a fellow writer would be "tricked" by something like that.

Of course, I guess you'd be right to point out that there ARE rules the arbitrator has follow, but those rules are supposedly there to protect the writer.

For example, to prevent a producer coming along, changing a few lines of dialogue, and then getting a writing credit, it's my understanding that dialogue changes are not considered.

This can all work against the writer, though, as Joss Whedon has talked about. He was brought in for rewrites on SPEED. He changed a few characters (e.g. Alan Ruck's character was originally a slimy lawyer), changed the story (e.g. he's responsible for the partner being killed), and he rewrote all the dialogue. And he STILL didn't get a written by credit after arbitration.

It would seem unlikely that he could have done none of that work, but just changed a character's name, and gotten credit.

Of course, I'm no expert, so I could be wrong.

Ryan Patrick said...

What is the process for writing for recurring guest stars (e.g. Allan Arbus, Pat Morita, Edward Winter, Harry Anderson, etc.)? Do you write first and then check the actor's availability? Or is it the other way around? Did you ever have to scrap plans for a character's appearance due to the actor's scheduling conflicts?

Helena said...

jbryant: Very interesting, thanks. (I'm fairly new to the blog so I'm not really up to speed on what has been said in the comments before.)

Sinecker said...

Anonymous: One point you must bear in mind--Dick Wolf added female regulars to LAW & ORDER after being told that the series would be canceled if its ratings among women viewers did not improve. So, on a practical level, there is no point in comparing the episodes with an all-male cast to the later ones, because if the change had not been made there would have been NO later episodes.

Mark Solomon said...

Channel 11 here in New York is once again starting the New Year off with a Bang/Zoom by airing
"The Honeymooners" marathon.
If you could have written one script for one of the following classic shows - The Honeymooners,
Sgt. Bilko, The Dick Van Dyke Show,
The Odd Couple - which would you have chosen to tackle, and why?

Chad said...

First off, my name isn't Chad, but I figured I'd play the odds. ;)

My question is about crafting and selling scripts. You mention that story credit goes to the person who submits the episode outline. I realize this is a necessary part of the process in getting each story told...but I'm not really an outline kind of writer. I jot down some relevant notes/lines/jokes and then head into the first draft, which is where the story really takes shape. Writing the entire story in advance always throws me off because I know that when I get in the groove, it's gonna shift directions easily. So the basic question is, is this practice frowned upon and if so what's your advice on how to amend it?

Also, a semi-rhetorical-but-not-really question: why is formatting such a pain in the ass? I've got Final Draft, so it's not the physical formatting that gives me problems; it's knowing what I need to put for every given scene/setting/action/dialogue description/transition/shot/etc. Is there a good resource that just goes through the basics of how to properly format everything one could possibly put in a script--montages, still photos, etc?

New year's resolution is to write at least a page a day...wish me luck!

Anonymous said...


While your observation about the series only surviving because of the changes Wolf made to his cast is entirely correct, your post is built upon something of an erroneous premise---namely, that the later seasons of the show were good enough to warrant that trade-off being made in the first place. "If they didn't change the cast, the show would have ended then and there" leads me to shrug my shoulders and say, "And? So what? Maybe it *should* have ended there, given what it became". As someone without a vested interest in the show continuing at all costs, of course, I can be more cavalier about such things...

Now, granted, Dick Wolf and the legions of others who milked twenty years worth of paycheques from the show couldn't give a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut about whether I, personally, happen to dislike fifteen seasons out of twenty. I don't for a second believe I ought to be the lone arbiter of such things, nor that I have cornered the market on wisdom as far as these things go. It really is purely a matter of taste. But, on a practical level, as you say, I think it *does* make sense to compare the two iterations of the show...*because they both exist*. It's only theory if the show did, in fact, end after four seasons. It didn't. And as such, I'm really at a loss to explain how you think it's somehow an invalid or unnecessary comparison. Whether the changes made were necessary for its survival or not, the changes *were* made, and the show that resulted from them, in my opinion, was a decidedly different, and decidedly worse, animal. As such, it's sort of foolish to pretend otherwise. Had the show been given the axe before the changes were made, it would have become pure speculative "what if?" fodder. It didn't. They made the changes they needed to in order to survive, but in the process ended up with a noticeably weaker show, in my estimation, consistency in formula notwithstanding.

Your mileage may vary.

sophomorecritic said...

I got another question: calls Frasier out for getting a number of details about Bar Mitzvahs wrong in the episode where Frederick gets Bar Mitzvahed?

Do you agree with their assessment that your research was less than thorough on that episode? Any possible explanations? I can understand why for the purposes of condensing the plot into 22 minutes, you would want to skip the post-Havtarah prayers, but I'm pretty sure taking a camera into a synagogue is something that couldn't happen.

"Very many in the Bar Mitzvah episode: the fact that the service ends after Frederick finishes reading his haftara (there is a whole other prayer service that follows); the fact that a dinner is apparently served then (this service is in the morning); Martin taking photos in a synagogue on the Sabbath (even in a Conservative synagogue he would be asked to stop)."

Tamara said...

Ken, forgive me if you've answered this already, but I can't find the story on your blog.
I recently heard an interview on NPR with the founder of M.A.D.D. She was talking about the early days of her non-profit and how she wanted to gain public support. She mentioned that she approached Cheers and that the show helped. Can you share that story? Thanks!