Friday, December 28, 2012

HOMELAND for the holidays

Last Friday Questions of the year.  I hope I do them justice.

Brian starts us off:

Ken - what do you think of Homeland and The Last Resort? I heard that Homeland was renewed up for another season, but that Last Resort was cancelled.

I love HOMELAND. Absolutely riveting television. And Claire Danes & Damian Lewis are extraordinary together. That’s not a surprise. What is is Mandy Patinkin. Usually I can do about five minutes. He makes Al Pacino seem understated. But in this show he’s so controlled. You can’t take your eyes off him. He’s finally learned that less is more, and I hope the result is an Emmy (although I worry about his acceptance speech). 

Also, HOMELAND has one of my favorite writers on its excellent staff – Meredith Stiehm.

As for LAST RESORT, I loved the pilot, but the series never lived up to it. In fairness, I don’t know how you sustain that premise. But as I’ve said here before, they should rethink it as a movie.

Lou H wonders:

When NBC bought your pilot and then killed the project, were you allowed to shop it to anyone else?

Usually you can. And ironically, that particular pilot was first sold to Fox. They ultimately passed saying it felt too much like an NBC show. When one of the Fox executives moved over to NBC she remembered and liked the project and bought it again.  Thank you, Jane!

For awhile, networks didn’t release projects, even if it meant they couldn’t recoup their investment. I think one reason for that was 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN. It was originally made for ABC. They passed and it became a big hit on NBC and ABC was quite embarrassed. But in today’s economy, networks are all too happy to take that risk if they can get the money back that they spent on developing a project they had no further use for.

Shai asks:

Have you ever been given notes (from anyone) that make perfect sense and would likely improve the screenplay/teleplay/book but are not necessarily in line with the current tone nor do they fit in directly with your writing style? What happens in such a situation?

Yes, that has happened on numerous occasions. I just politely tell the person those are great notes but that’s not the story we’re telling. And sometimes their story is equally valid but we’re just as happy with the one we chose. Often we've already considered their story path and decided for whatever reason to discard it.  If their story is considerably better however, we generally change it. Our motto has always been: Best idea wins.

The Comic Scholar queries:

When a writer in television uses a pseudonym, do people usually address them by their real name or the pseudonym? Also, on contracts which name do they sign?

They’re addressed by their real names and sign all legal contracts with their real names. Writers take pseudonyms if they hate the final product but still want to receive the royalties they’re entitled to.

My two favorite pseudonym stories: Larry Gelbart hated what Blake Edwards did to his script of ROUGH CUT.  When he turned in his draft I asked what Blake thought and he said, "Blake loved it up to and including the title page."  So Larry took the pseudonym Francis Burns. In other words -- Frank Burns.

My other favorite is from Paul Rudnick. He came up with the idea for SISTER ACT and wrote the first nine  or twenty drafts. After he left, every writer in Hollywood took a stab at it. He was ultimately not pleased with the result. As this was a Disney movie he wanted his pseudonym to be “Goofy.” The studio balked for some reason.

A common pseudonym for some reason is Alan Smithee.  If you see that guy wrote or directed anything you might want to think about seeing something else.   Anything else.    

What’s your question? Please leave it in the comments section. As always, many thanks, and I’ll try to get to as many as I can.


Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Sadly, last I've heard, Meredith Stiehm had already signed on to do a new pilot, so she might not be around for the upcoming season of Homeland.

The minute Homeland became a success, every studio in town started making offers to these talented writers. I've heard both Alexander Cary and Henry Bromell also had pilot commitments.

Carrie's bipolar disorder had some great input from Stiehm, since she has a sister with the same condition. I hope they manage to carry on without her and still remain true o character.

Unknown said...

I like Homeland, but I am having trouble with buying into the Carrie/Brody relationship. Would a top-level CIA agent really fall for a prime-suspect terrorist? (If Brody was Carrie's biographer, no problem!)

Interesting to learn that Ms. Stiehmm's sister suffers the same disorder. I thought Carrie's sister was one of the more interesting characters on the show. I hope they bring her back.

Roger Owen Green said...

I just finished the new book of yours this morning. I went to a school in Binghamton, NY that did the start in February, end in January thing. In fact, I wrote about it recently.

There were a couple chronological goofs in your book, though. Do you want them discussed here, or elsewhere, for the next edition? (And if elsewhere, WHERE elsewhere?)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Taking nothing fromt the great performances, I loved season 1 of HOMELAND; this season it began feeling like a different show; too many things where the plot didn't make much sense to me. I'm more interested now in seeing PRISONERS OF WAR, the Israeli original on which HOMELAND is based than S3 of HOMELAND. (POW was broadcast in Britain, and the DVDs are available there.)


Mitchell Hundred said...

Can you give us any details about Bioshock Infinite, the video game that your studio will be releasing next year?

Will Fitzgerald said...

Presumably, you're aware of this Irish language adaptation of Cheers in the works?

Presuming, you're allowed to comment, can I ask how you feel about such an adaptation of your works?
And can I ask, are you the experienced sitcom consultant? :)

Anonymous said...

I know a writer who uses the pseudonym 'D. Kline.'

Johnny Walker said...

Alan Smithee WAS the name assigned by the DGA for directors who wanted their name removed from something. It was never used for writers. After it became public knowledge, they stopped using it. One of the last times it was used was in the notorious flop BURN HOLLYWOOD BURN: AN ALAN SMITHEE FILM where a director called Alan Smithee wants his name taken off a film, but can only have it replaced with... Well you get the idea. Arthur Hiller, the real director of the film, hated the final cut so much his credit was changed, quite appropriately, to Alan Smithee.

BigTed said...

I've seen Mandy Patinkin in two Broadway musicals ("Sweeney Todd" and "Sunday in the Park with George"), and he was brilliant. But the over-the-top emoting that works on stage clearly needs to be toned way down for television, so I'm glad he's learned to do that. (Although he was also good in Bryan Fuller's weird Showtime series "Dead Like Me," which is now being rerun on the "Chiller" network.)

Griff said...

Blake Edwards didn't make ROUGH CUT; Don Siegel directed the 1980 picture. The script wound up with many hands touching it -- some at the insistence of producer David Merrick, who also greatly annoyed director Siegel. Not long before the film's release, the studio recalled the picture's three principals and shot an entirely new ending; this still didn't quite clear up the murky plot.

Blake Edwards later worked for quite a while on the script for a period crime comedy set to team Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds; Edwards was also the original director of the project. After he was let go from the film, later known as CITY HEAT -- and other writers came in -- Edwards came up with a unique pseudonym: "Sam O. Brown." Or, as in the title of Edwards' 1981 Hollywood comedy, "S.O.B."

By Ken Levine said...


At the time Larry was commissioned to write the script, Blake Edwards was who he dealt with.


There are writers who have used Alan Smithee as well.


Send me a personal message on Facebook.

Johnny Walker said...

Ken, you're absolutely right, my bad! I just knew it was a DGA invention, but it seems that some writers have knowingly asked for that name.

Matt Bird said...

Wait, I think that "The Comic Scholar" wasn't referring to "take my name off the credits" situations, but rather cases like Jon Stewart, Woody Allen, LL Cool J, 50 Cent, et al? What do they sign?

Marty Fufkin said...

Although Homeland is riveting, the one thing I can't stand about it is everyone saying, "It shows the enemy's side of the story, so daring for US television." That's the reason I started watching. But in fact, all the Muslims in the show are terrorists (save for an occasional walk-on by an incidental character).

The idea of a vice-presidential candidate actually being a closet Muslim is dramatic enough. But why does every white character in the show who's converted to Islam have to be a terrorist, too?

Aside from that, it is superb storytelling.

B.B. Callow -- you say it's implausible for the CIA agent to have feelings for Brody. Here's my take: She identifies with him because he's just as damaged as she is. She's mentally ill, she's internally defined by it, and she's being eaten away by having to keep it secret for the sake of her job. She connects with Brody because he is being eaten away by his own traumas and secrets, and suffering mentally in the same manner. Carrie's own illness may have clouded her emotional judgement with Brody, but she also feels connected to his mentally damaged personality.

Anonymous said...

I thought this article about frequently-used movie and TV locations was pretty interesting. Julie, Burlington, Iowa

Mike Schryver said...

I still say Burn, Hollywood, Burn is the worst movie I've ever seen.
It was like being at a party where you don't know anyone. It seemed to me that the only potential audience for the movie was people who know Mike Ovitz personally, which is a pretty small universe for a nationally released film. Just horrid.

Johnny Walker said...

Burn Hollywood Burn was essentially Joe Eszterhas's movie. In his memoir (hey, I found it surprisingly entertaining!) he says he's still happy with how it came out, even if no-one else was.

I guess it's one of those rare times when the director was treated like the writer, and vise versa.

Mac said...

The Last Resort would make an amazing movie. Quite apart from their relationship with the US, what would you do if you had your own island and nuclear weapons? Personally I'd go the Kim Jong Il route but that's just me - probably best I never get my own nuclear weapons.

Michael said...


I noticed that most of the Frasier episodes you and David Isaacs wrote involved old Cheers characters. Is there a particular reason for this?

Also, did the studio audience know in advance if a special guest star was there, or was their entrance a surprise?

Angelica said...

Well thanks for the post on Homeland, the best series ever! and happy new year from my buenos aires apartment

erich said...

Here's my question:

A couple summers ago, my brother and I hiked through Malibu State Park to the site of the M*A*S*H set. It was very cool to see. But it wasn't that easy of a hike! Sure, time has passed and a lot of the trails are overgrown but I wondered how everyone got to set everyday? Was it a pain to have to go out there all the time? Or am I over-thinking something normal and simplistic?

Bill said...

Hi, Ken. Really enjoyed your book about your life in the sixties and hope a book about life in the seventies is forthcoming.

Was wondering if you could say something about Larry Marks, who I understand wrote radio scripts with Larry Gelbart (for Bob Hope), renewing this association decades later on MASH. I loved his writing on Hogan's Heroes (for which he wrote something like seventy shows) and am awed by the fact he could produce so many quality, funny scripts for a single series.

Wanted to recommend Bradbury and McGrath's book "Now That's Funny: Writers on Writing Comedy," which I found at the Studio City Samuel French a few years back and is a must-read for anyone interested in British radio-TV comedy. Because of this book I found out about John Sullivan (the creator of TVs "Dear John") and his epic creation, "Only Fools and Horses, (he scripted every ep), which, to my mind, stands alongside "Fawlty Towers" as one of the great "Britcoms" of all time. If you're interested in checking out some episodes for yourself, Ken, then might I recommend these six, spanning thirteen years of the show's history: Healthy Competition and Who's a Pretty Boy? (from 1983), Danger UXD and The Unlucky Winner Is... (1989), Heroes and Villains and Time On Our Hands (1996).
Think you might like what you see.

Lastly, recently saw your "Adventures in Paradise" episode of "Frasier" and was curious to know who came up with that great Niles to Lilith response line about Lilith having someone in Vegas who could 'show you the museums.' This has to be one of my favorite of all sitcom lines, right up there with some of Burns/Marmar lines from early Get Smart episodes (like the one about the suicide pill not being habit-forming).

All Best and happy 2013 to you -

Phil said...

Hi Ken,

here in the UK, Channel 4 shows FRASIER every day (usually two episodes at a time). They recently got to the end of the series and re-started back at season one... which prompted a couple of questions.

Today they showed your first season episode with Lilith ("The Show Where Lilith Comes Back"). I gather this was from mid-season - and yet the episode established all of the regular characters so well that it could almost be mistaken for a pilot. My question: was that episode was intended as some kind of mid-season re-start for the show?

My second question is just about FRASIER generally. Those little scenes during the closing credits, many of them beautiful little visual sequences: how thoroughly were they scripted?

Thanks for your excellent blog!

- Phil Nichols