Monday, July 18, 2016

The Levine & Isaacs writing process

Hello from New York.  Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.

MikeK.Pa. asks:

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?

(You can see why one or two paragraphs might not cover this.)

We have no set way of coming up with ideas. I think we’ve each trained ourselves to always be on the lookout for good ideas because you never know when that spark is going to come.

Speaking for myself, I’ll read an article or see an incident at In & Out or come across some historical tidbit, or even hear a song that might trigger an idea.

I’ll then immediately jot the idea down. I keep a file of them. Most never come to fruition but every so often one will pop out. I have pilot ideas, movie ideas, play ideas. A lot of them suck.  But you just never know.

By and large the best ideas are the ones that come from real life – something you’ve experienced or know others who have.

If David or I come up with a pilot idea the first thing we discuss is what’s the theme? What is the show really about? Then we try to determine whether the idea has legs. Is it conceivable to get a hundred episodes out of this idea? Are there rich veins of comedy? Is the idea original enough? Can we create interesting characters? Is this something we’d want to write for five years?

The best pilots come from relationships.  What is the central one?  

Once we’ve determined that, the next step is developing the characters. We spend a lot of time on this. Who are they? What do they want? What’s preventing them from getting it? How do the characters relate to each other? What’s funny about them? What’s original? How many do we need? How hard will they be to cast?

Next we figure out a general story. Not too complicated. We look for a story that best conveys the premise. Usually the first question is: should this be a premise pilot or not? A premise pilot tells the story from the beginning. Diane enters the CHEERS bar for the first time. Kimmy Schmidt is released from captivity. A non-premise pilot has everything already in place. THE OFFICE and SEINFELD are two examples.

Premise pilots are usually easier because the story is built in. If your show is a romantic comedy the first episode is often the couple meeting. Or if you’re doing a workplace comedy, a new boss takes over, it’s the first day on the job, the main character’s father dies and leaves him the business, etc.

We do whatever works best for that series. Once we’ve decided on a story we write a beat sheet. We try to find the best and funniest way to introduce the characters, show them off, and tell the story.

After we’ve played with the beat sheet we write a detailed outline. Even if we don’t have to turn it in to a network or studio, we still feel there’s great value in writing a ten to fifteen page outline complete with jokes (although we may not use them).

We look over the outline, revise it – either majorly or cosmetically -- then write our first draft.

The way David and I work is we write head-to-head.  We sit in the same room and dictate the script to an assistant who either takes shorthand or is a whiz on the computer.   Other partnerships work differently.  Some divide up the scenes, some have one write the first draft and the other write the second draft.   We can work that way if need be, but we'd rather work together. 

Usually we over-write the first draft, especially early on as we’re still discovering the characters, how they speak, how they interact. We’ll take a second pass at the script, often really changing some things, and trimming the early over-written pages.

We each take a copy of the script home, make notes, single out jokes that could be better, suggested cuts, and any story issues that still bother one of us, then come in the next day and do another pass.

And that’s it. When we’re happy with the draft we send it in.

Then come network notes, and if the show is greenlit to be made, we revise based on casting, and do our usual due diligence once the pilot is in production. We attend daily runthroughs and go back to the office to rewrite. We’re generally rewriting up until the director says “That’s a wrap.”

As for the time frame: Let’s start from the point where we have an idea for a series. And let’s pretend we don’t have to stop while we wait for some bureaucratic approval. Several weeks for the character descriptions, story, and outline work. Once we start writing the draft it takes us about two weeks. We can write an episode of a series in three days if we have to, but a pilot is different. We’re swimming in unfamiliar waters. We talk things out more, we experiment more, we make mid-course corrections.

Once the first draft is turned in there are many more rewrites, which could be minor and only require a day or two, or major requiring another week or two.

That’s a very general description and timeline. Every pilot is a little different. Some have time limits attached, others don’t. Some stories fall together easily, others we’ve had to wrestle to the ground. Pilots are a bitch. But when they work and you’re on the stage and a hundred people are employed because of an idea you had one day sitting at In & Out, it’s pretty cool.


Andrew said...

Since you mentioned The Office, here's a Friday question:
The first few seasons of The Office were golden television. But the quality declined drastically in the later scenes, mainly because Steve Carell left. The show then became a shadow of its former self.
My question: Do people working on a show realize when the quality is plummeting, or are they unable to see how everything is going off the rails? Why not pull the plug when it's clear the magic is gone?

Andrew said...

Sorry: "seasons" not "scenes."

Matt said...

Quick question, probably not worth a Friday question.

Do series creators get royalties on episodes where the essentially were not involved.

Matt said...

Hi Andrew,

I imagine most actors realize the quality is going down, but it is there job. They make good money making their current series with probably modest prospects afterwards. I bet most of them want to ride the wave as long as it lasts.

Kit said...

The quality declined on later seasons of The Office because Mike Schur left, not Steve Carell.

Jeff Maxwell said...

You suggest you've provided a "general description and timeline," but anyone reading it will not be lacking. Tremendous insight into your process, and THE process.

MikeN said...

"By and large the best ideas are the ones that come from real life"

Norm said this to Conan, "For example, you sent a driver to pick me up. The driver told me a joke."

Tammy said...

Love these writing process posts. Thanks!

John in Ohio said...

Follow up to today's post.
To what degree do networks interfere today? My understanding of the big 4 is that they micromanage. My understanding of streaming services is that they give more freedom. Is that an accurate understanding? Where do the hbos and amcs fall? Does anyone really give you a free hand? Does that require giving up financial incentives?

Anonymous said...

yes, creators are continuously paid irregardless of involvement. one cbs guy I met was laughing at the fact they wanted 'new blood' while he got to be home and still very well paid

find the chicago tribune article that details jeff lieber and the creation of "Nowhere" (then re-named "Lost") on his stake in that and how it came about. Not typical, but gets tot he root of your question.

Frank Beans said...

Thanks for this post, Ken. It's always great to get insight into the writing process from those who have done it successfully. Not that anyone can really "teach" creativity to anyone, but one can certainly learn.

Cap'n Bob said...

I collaborated once and we had a singular system. I did all the work and he took all the credit.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Great insight to the creative process on pilots. Thanks so much for sharing it. You really should write a book on sitcom writing - when you're not posting blogs, writing plays, pitching script ideas or directing. Thanks again.

Andrew said...

Thanks Matt and Kit for responding to my question.

Jason said...

(mild spoiler from like 20 years ago) My favorite premise pilot was the original CSI. Starts off just like you'd expect, with a new person starting at the office that day, getting introduced, etc. Then she gets killed on the job.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow. That was incredibly useful and revealing. Thanks so much for sharing it!

Herschel said...

Hey, Ken, can you point me to an actual outline? I've been reading your blog for a while and you talk about the outline all the time. I'd like to see a real professional one if possible.