Friday, June 24, 2016

Friday Questions

It’s that time of the week again….

Joseph Scarbrough starts us off.

What about episodes where guest/one-shot characters are the main focus and the main characters are reduced to secondary roles? We were discussing "The Nurses" on a M*A*S*H site earlier this week and, to me, with the main focus being on the one-shot nurse whom Margaret confines to quarters, but tries to spend a romantic night with her husband, a passing foot soldier, and the other nurses as secondary characters in her corner for support, it felt less like an episode of M*A*S*H, or more like an entry in an anthology series.

Showrunners do this at their own peril. Unless you have a very gracious and secure cast, you do run the very real risk of causing acrimony or even mutiny on the set. MASH had a pretty remarkable cast, and that episode was several years into the series run. It also helped that it was a terrific episode.

Personally, I try to avoid doing them.  If my cast can't carry a show then I'm in big trouble.  

Over the years when I was on staff I’ve had a number of extras give me spec scripts they’d written for that series. Invariably, THEY would be the featured actor that week and not say, Ted Danson or Alan Alda. But I’m sure they took their cue off of episodes like “the Nurses.” By the way, when writing spec scripts, DON’T DO THAT.

From Brian Phillips:

Harlan Ellison said that a person wrote him a letter about one of his stories saying that reading the story helped give him further insight on Ovid's poem Metamorphoses, because of the parallels between the story and Ovid's poem.

The catch was, Ellison, to that point, had not READ Metamorphoses!

Have you had anyone notice references that weren't there to any of your work?

Someone once wrote a thesis on all the classical references and symbolism in an episode of MASH David Isaacs and I wrote called “The Billfold Syndrome.”

It was very impressive and we sure came off looking scholarly except for one small thing: None of it was true. I didn’t even know half the references.

You have to take yourself waaaaay too seriously as a writer to even attempt to do shit like that.

One line I vaguely recall had us “clearly” comparing Hawkeye to the Anti-Christ when in truth we were just looking for a joke so we could go to lunch.

Jeff Alexander asks:

There is a Ken Levine who is credited with six versions of a video game titled BioShock. Has there been any confusion -- has he gotten job offers that should have gone to you or vice versa?

No job offers but there has been confusion. When I did my famous Kickstarter rant against Zach Braff (it went viral and I got one million hits in one day), he had to post something saying it wasn’t him. And when he laid off a bunch of employees a few years ago I received many angry emails and Tweets.

At one time someone was trying to put together a panel on creativity for some tech convention and wanted to get both of us to be the panelists. That would have been awesome, but the timing didn’t work.

There’s also another Ken Levine who I know has taken credit for my work. Avoid that Ken Levine. The Bioshock guy is pretty cool.

And finally, Jahn Ghalt wonders:

Ken, you described your "firsts" on MARY in 1985 as a first-time show-runner and first-time director - the latter as a crisis-response on short notice.

Your role was to block the scene, then the original director blocked the cameras.

For Mad Men Matthew Weiner hired his own first-timers (without the crisis) - Jon Hamm, John Slattery, and Jared Harris.

These "rookies" started preparing at least two weeks before shooting. Hamm and Slattery prepared on the same days that they acted on earlier episodes (Harris was already "dead" when he directed his episode).

So my question - how much of the usual director's chores would go to others for the rooks? For instance I suppose they would lean on the DP for camera blocking. How are the decisions (and the "labor") divided between Director and DP?

First time directors do get a lot of help. A good DP is not going to let a green director plan a bad shot or shoot a scene that can’t be edited correctly. Ultimately though, it's the director's decision. 

In our case with MARY, it was meatball surgery. We were just looking to get through an emergency situation.

But this does bring up a big pet peeve of mine. Especially on multi-camera shows, the camera blocking and shot selection can be very complicated. You have four cameras all filming simultaneously, moving during the scenes, changing actors, changing sizes, etc. First-time directors can easily be overwhelmed. So they rely on the camera coordinator to do most of the work.

But ultimately the director needs to learn those technical aspects to where the camera coordinator is just there for support. It takes time and experience and most importantly, the willingness to learn.

There are some “directors” who know nothing about cameras and just expect the camera coordinator to handle that. To me that’s not right. The director is getting paid a lot more than the camera coordinator. Assigning shots is part of the JOB of being a director. If you’re a surgeon you need to know how to make incisions. You can’t just say to the nurse, “You do the cutting and I’ll be over at the craft services table.”

Also, you need to know cameras to efficiently block the actors. Otherwise you may have blocked one actor upstaging another, or two actors too far apart, or an actor totally in profile, or action in a corner of the set you can’t shoot. So not only do camera coordinators have to do the director’s job, the director has made it way more difficult. And of course if a shot looks bad, who gets blamed? Of course. The camera coordinator. It doesn’t seem fair.

Okay, enough of my ranting.  What’s your Friday Question?


AAllen said...

My name is Arthur Allen, and I once got an e-vite for the launch of the book Vaccine, by Arthur Allen. I wonder if they just sent those out to every Arthur Allen or if they really thought I was the author. The party was in San Francisco and I'm in Seattle, so I couldn't go. Later I got an email from a PBS Frontline producer wanting medical information. Sorry, wrong Arthur Allen.

Jason said...

The other Ken Levine pronounces it "Lah-VEEN", so obviously I can't see how there's any confusion between the two of you.

Michael said...

Ken, your experience with "The Billfold Syndrome" made me think of a line from Joe Adamson, who wrote a biography of the great animation director Tex Avery. He called it "the sociological sidestep." Namely, people attributed ideas that just weren't there. Avery wanted to make funny cartoons. When he spoofed Hitler, yes, he was attacking Hitler, but he was also trying to make us laugh.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Mine honestly wasn't even really meant to be a Friday question, I was commenting on an earlier post where someone had mentioned episodes spotlighting the second tier characters of a show tend to be weaker than others; but this is still really interesting insight, Ken. I still remember my initial reaction to "The Nurses" eleven years ago, and how shocked I was at the revelation that Margaret actually had feelings.

chuckcd said...

Who is Jahn Ghalt?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Joseph Scarbrough...

Whenever I see these secondary character type episodes or storylines, my first thought is, "They are testing out a possible spinoff"

David said...

Hi Ken

A Friday Question

I’m currently working on a spec script for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Should I include Act breaks as the earliest scripts in the series did before it was bought by Netflix or should I leave them out, as the show has no natural commercial breaks. On one hand I can show that I know how to effectively use act breaks. On the other hand it may look off. What do you think?

Thanks in advance.


Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

I think that it's deplorable when people misrepresent themselves.

- Albert Einstein

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Bumble Bee Pendant That could be, but it's not always necessarily the case. For example, one early episode of COMBAT! didn't even feature either of the two headliners Vic Morrow or Rick Jason, mainly because the producers were experimenting to see if the supporting actors could carry the show themselves without the leads.

@Cheryl Please tell me you're joking about turning M*A*S*H into a Broadway musical.

cd1515 said...

whenever I hear about well-known actors or writers who "want to direct" and immediately get the chance, I wonder: are there unknown people on the crew who are way more qualified, who've been waiting years for a chance, who get passed over and are pissed?

MikeK.Pa. said...

Wonder if you can give a high level look at your writing process with David Isaacs - what sparks an idea for a script, how long it takes to get from idea to outline to first draft to final script.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Ken, you referred, at first, to a "DP" (Director of Photograpy) then the "camera coordinator". What is the difference in their roles? Does a show or film usually have both? If the budget only permits one of them, which do you hire?

Jahn Ghalt said...

chuckcd asked:
Who is Jahn Ghalt?


Darned if I know!

I'll say this, he DIDN'T give a 30,000-word speech at the end of a 600,000-word novel.

MikeN said...

Bioshock indeed.
Ken Levine looks like a combo of Shane and Rick, with a little David Duchovny.

D. McEwan said...

In college, I directed, co-wrote and co-starred in a student film. The entire class wrote critiques of all the student films. I got one critique in which a student, in a snotty, superior tone, said how he'd recognized our "Source,"as Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers. which we'd "Ripped off" in our vampire comedy. I took a certain pleasure in informing this smug dick before the entire class that neither my co-writer nor myself had ever seen The Fearless Vampire Killers. Having seen it since, I note that the only thing the two films have in common is that both are comedies about vampires. Now The Rockey Horror Picture Show, though built on Frankenstein imagery rather than vampires, is remarkably similar in plot, tone, characters, incidents and satirical targets to our film, but we made ours five years before The Rocky Horror Picture Show was filmed, before the stage version was even written.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@D. McEwan I had a somewhat situation happen to me several years back in which I did a webcomic miniseries about a vampire, and one insignificant plot detail was that she took up a part-time job of evenings (so as not to have to travel in daylight) as a babysitter. Shortly thereafter, I made the discovery that Disney Channel had a tweencom called MY BABYSITTER'S A VAMPIRE that I was completely unaware of . . . mainly because I haven't really watched Disney Channel since they stopped airing RECESS, lol.

On that token, I will admit, while I haven't seen it, SCHITT'S CREEK sounds an awful lot like a sitcom concept I had been drafting and outlining years agao.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Oh and heck, while we're on the subject, I've had two occasions in the past where friends were initially excited because it looked as though I was actually trending on Facebook, but were then disappointed to realize that it wasn't me who was trending, but rather, conservative windbag, Joe Scarborough.

Tom in Vegas said...

Hi Ken


You've recently written a number of posts regarding credits, and I have a question regarding the opening credits on MASH. In the episodes immediately following Gary Burghoff's departure from the show, he is listed at the end of the opening credits as "Also Starring Gary Burghoff as Radar O'Reilly" Why is it that he is given a credit line even though he does not appear in the episode at all?

Jabroniville said...

I think part of the issue with these kind of "Lower Deck Episodes" (as they're called in the STAR TREK fandom) is that for all the work put into them, the characters rarely reappear or feature heavily again. This means that the impact of the story is diminished over time. I just watched "The Nurses" for the first time about a week ago, and one of the big things that struck me was how you basically never saw any of these women again- next episode was right back to the usual gang. So while it was a good episode, it only "mattered" in that Margaret got some characterization.

Focusing on the nurses also put a fine point on just how often they cycled out, too- at least in most episodes, you could pretend that the extras were always the same women. Having four distinct characters in each scene made you really NOTICE when they vanished without a trace later on. The 4077th cycled through nurses like crazy! What- were they all dying? Getting sent home for fraternizing with Hawkeye?

Stuart Best said...

Hi Ken.


I always wondered what the writers on MASH thought of the original movie. Was there ever much thought to staying true to the spirit of the film? I know that Richard Hooker (the author) and Robert Altman (the director) disliked the TV show, and I wonder how that feeling went over among the show's staff. Personally, I love many of Altman's films, but MASH fell flat on me. The TV series had more purpose -- a rarity for the movie-to-TV transition.

Emily said...


What do you think the character of Frasier Crane had that allowed him to click so well in a spin-off series of his own that fellow CHEERS characters like Norm and Cliff -- I'm guessing -- didn't have? Why do you think some series characters work well when plunked down into a spin-off of their own, while others don't work at all well? Is it some limitation inherent in the conception of some characters -- that is, that some characters simply have more potential, or is it more that the character is handled poorly and not further developed well for the spin-off?



Bob Gassel said...

Friday Question: When are going to see M*A*S*H in HD?...

Anonymous said...

Mr McEwan, perhaps they stole Rocky Horror from you!

D. McEwan said...

"Anonymous said...
Mr McEwan, perhaps they stole Rocky Horror from you!"

Most unlikely, since Richard O'Brian never saw my film. I know who saw it and who didn't because I owned the only print. (By the time I transferred it to video and made copies for other folks in it, Rocky Horror had been out for decades.) It was just great minds having similar ideas and targets.

Bryan Thomas said...

Brian’s question points to an issue that continually plagues creators in the internet age: “fans reading things into stories and then holding authors accountable for them that the authors never intended.” It is the source of a lot of online bullying and attacks against authors and creators, and it is ridiculous. One of the amazing things about art is how it can touch individuals differently. You put a piece out there and it takes on a life of its own drawing out meanings and emotions you never expected from people. But those reactions are based on their personal experiences, their culture, their references, etc. so blaming an author for them is ridiculous. In some cases, like this, they are fortunately giving you credit for positives that you never conceived, but in many cases they are attacking and blaming authors for negative messages and intentions that also never existed. This makes it very difficult for some authors and leads to slander and ongoing acrimony that can last years. I’m glad yours was more of a positive experience. Mine have mostly not been. And I wish people would accept and realize that what you bring to art has as much to do with how you experience it as any subliminal thing you might suppose the author brought, and nine times out of ten, is way more responsible than author intent for your reactions. Okay, rant over.