Thursday, March 07, 2013

Solving a writer's nightmare

What do you do when you have to write a script and on page two you’re stuck? You’ve cleared the story with the producers, the outline has been approved, you have a deadline, and four lines after FADE IN you come to a screeching halt. I feel an arctic breeze go up my sphincter just thinking about it.

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.

Finally, David suggested we shake up the routine. “Let’s drive to San Diego, lock ourselves in a hotel room, and just blast through the script” he said. The idea was to just get anything on paper. And that’s what we did. We found a large hotel in Mission Valley, ordered room service (okay… several drinks), and dove in. Sure enough, we broke through and completed a very rough draft by the end of the weekend. We drove home, spent the next few days trying to punch it up (or, as I like to say “putting lipstick on a pig”). And we turned it in.

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.


Theodore said...

"Finally, David suggested we shake up the routine. “Let’s drive to San Diego, lock ourselves in a hotel room, and just blast through the script” he said. The idea was to just get anything on paper."

This is extremely similar to the season one Frasier episode "Author, Author" from Don Seigel & Jerry Perzigian! Their resolution was quite as neat though, it ended with the two of them at blows.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The big problem these days is that the big distraction that is the Internet follows you to hotel rooms. And the beach. And anywhere else you might try to escape to.


Johnny Walker said...

Wow, that's a stinker of an assignment! I guess it would have to be closer to a drama for that particular episode?

Would love to know what Steve Gordon thought about it. (There's some pretty dark stuff in Arthur, but it's handled brilliantly.)

Johnny Walker said...

@Wendy, That's very true. The most distracting technology is also the most pervasive :(

John said...

MASH kind of dealt with a similar storyline in Season 2's "Dear Dad". But it was one of a couple of plots, not the entire focus of the show, so you could cut away to another thread to get the humor (plus in this case, Hawkeye and Trapper had more control over the foil, because he was a wounded soldier).

Bob Gassel said...

True news story hitting the wire... North Korea is threatening to cancel the 1953 cease-fire that ended the Korean War.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Isn't getting half-blitzed in a San Diego hotel room the solution for most of life's problems? (And also the cause of the rest?)

GMJ said...

If I remember the show correctly, the late Mike Evans (Lionel from "The Jefferson"/"All in the Family") played the intern and was added to the cast in season two of "The Practice". It's a shame that series didn't last longer than 2 seasons.

Mike McCann said...

Two questions for you, Ken... did you guys ever get paid for the script (you were commissioned to do the work while the show was still "active") and did you ever get another chance to work with Danny Thomas again?

The saddest aspect of THE PRACTICE not catching on was that it was the right show on the wrong network. If Norrman Lear or Grant Tinker had overseen that show for CBS, the show could (and should) have gone several more years.

Unknown said...

I just hope people don't think Danny Thomas was the writer's nightmare..,

Carol said...

Do you still have that script? I'd love to read it. I'd love to read all your old stuff, actually, specs and shows you wrote but didn't get produced, etc.

YEKIMI said...

Two guys from out of town locking themselves into a hotel room, ordering drinks and then checking out after a weekend.......nowadays wouldn't get a raised eyebrow but back in the late 70s I bet the hotel staff tongues were wagging.

MikeN said...

I wouldn't go to a black doctor, given the affirmative action they have at medical schools.

Johnny Walker said...

Last time I checked all students had to take the same exams before they become doctors.

Rich D said...

I've always found that if I block on a certain section of something I'm writing, I hop over to another section I have more faith in and work on that. Hopefully something will happen while doing that which will make the other stuff easier to work through.

GMJ said...

One of many reasons why "Ignore" or "Collapse Comments" was invented.

You just don't get this post, do you?

That's all I have to say.
(Sorry, Ken, for the off-topic response.)

Anonymous said...

Would love to hear more about "The Practice". I barely remember it as a kid until it was rerun somewhere (Nick at Nite, maybe?) and thought it was hysterical.

Mike in Seattle said...

You're pretty much stuck with an Archie Bunker v. the Jeffersons kind of story in that situation in order to still be funny, right? Or did you work it out differently?

Mike in Seattle said...

And I should add, that makes Danny Thomas' character more of a foil. To carry the All in the Family analogy further, he becomes more of a Maude or the character that Betty Garrett played.

Harold X said...

GMJ said...

One of many reasons why "Ignore" or "Collapse Comments" was invented.

You just don't get this post, do you?

That's all I have to say.
(Sorry, Ken, for the off-topic response.)

I think MikeN was making a joke: "How would a real moron respond to this thread?"

Victor Velasco said...

Hey Ken,

Not sure how to ask this as simple as possible but here goes. What happens when the "any resemblance to any person..." disclaimer is not enough, or, is it always enough? (guess this is more than one question) Some examples: 'Seinfeld', the J.Peterman, Magic Pan, O Henry references; 'Sopranos'; references to specific officials in Caldwell or Essex County. What about writing about character traits of well known actual people? As long as you don't have them committing a crime can you put them in a scenario that falls within definitions of their public image? Thanks for your time.

GMJ said...

Harold X:

If that was a joke, then (s)he needs a a better joke writer.


Yeah, but didn’t you get a great idea for the Crane Boys to lock themselves in a hotel?
Hey, I bet if Frazier ‘twere a fan of Nirvana this following link photo would have resulted.

Stay on groovin' safari,

Zach said...

You turn it into a white revenge fantasy ala Django.

Mark P said...

Along the lines of Victor's question...

Castle and Law and Order refer to plenty of NYC institutions, but when it comes to colleges they pretty much use the fictional "Hudson University". As a writer, what guidelines do you have to follow when referring to real life people and places?