Saturday, August 04, 2018

Rookie Mistakes

Everyone has to start somewhere. For me and my writing partner, David Isaacs our first paid writing assignment was for an episode of THE JEFFERSONS. Prior to that we had been writing spec scripts, schlepping down to the Writers Guild to register them for protection, and then we peddled them to anyone who would read them.

Our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (which had already been rejected by THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and RHODA) found its way into the hands of Gordon Mitchell, one of the story editors of THE JEFFERSONS. He liked it well enough to invite us to come in and pitch story ideas for the show. One hit the mark and we got the assignment.

Now came the hard part. Not the writing – but covering the fact that we were both utterly clueless of the process.

Step one was breaking the story. We met with Gordon and his partner, Lloyd Turner and worked out the beats of the story. Gordon then asked how long we needed to write the outline?

The outline? You have to write an outline?

I didn’t say that, but that’s what I was thinking. David and I wrote outlines for ourselves but they were usually handwritten scribbles on a couple pieces of notebook paper. I didn’t think that’s what he meant.

So we were on the spot. We didn’t want to say a week and have them say, “A week? It should take you two days.” Or we say two days and they say, “What? You’re just going to dash it off? It should take a month.”

We asked to see a copy of one of their outlines because we said, “every show has its own preference.” Even this was a stretch. They do vary, but we didn’t know that. There could have been one standard outline format used by every television show since Shakespeare’s day – how did we know?

They provided an outline. It was about seven/eight pages. We glanced at it and figured about three or four days. “Perfect,” they said. Whew. We navigated that minefield.

Once our outline was submitted and approved we were turned loose to write the script. Only hitch was that they needed it in two weeks. Normally that would not be a problem. But David and I were in the Army Reserves and those happened to be the two weeks we were ordered to report for active duty. Fortunately, we were in the same unit (we met in the Army Reserves) and were able to write the script at night at Fort Ord. Of course, that was a little strange. Picture one of those large barracks like in FULL METAL JACKET that houses fifty or sixty soldiers. It’s the evening. Guys are blaring the radio, smoking pot, drinking beer, playing cards or nerf basketball, and we’re sitting on a bunk saying things like, “Weezy, get over here!”
Script completed. Duty to country served. Monday morning upon our return I call Gordon to tell him we were bringing in the draft. “Great,” he said, “When can I have it?” I said, “Well, it’s 9:30. The Guild doesn’t open until 10. We’ve got to go over there and register the script, so I guess about 11:00.” He stopped me. “Schmuck!” he said. “You don’t have to register the script. I bought the script. You’re protecting yourself against me.” Oops. Didn’t know that. “Oh,” I said, “Then we can be there in twenty minutes.” “There you go!” he replied.

We hand-delivered the script and they were still laughing when we arrived.

Down through the years David and I have given a number of young writers their first assignment. And learning from our experience, we spell everything out. For you aspiring scribes, hopefully you too will get that first elusive script assignment. And hopefully you’ll get showrunners who will walk you through the process. But if not, don’t be proud. If there’s something you don’t know – ask. You may save yourself a lot of laughter that won’t be yours.


Janet Ybarra said...

Great story! After you turned in the script, were you and David invited to watch taping? Did you guys throw a big drunken watch party? ;)

And just curious, how and if you were able to parlay that experience into a second and subsequent sales?

E. Yarber said...

While we all carry stories like that in the back of our minds forever, incidents like that are really the best thing that can happen to you at that stage of your career. Case in point: I can't speak French.

A few years ago I was working with a USC Film grad who was trying to expand his student film into a feature. A small production company had liked his short and asked him for a treatment before they invested in a longer version. A lot of beginners want to focus on treatments or even pitches because they're easier to finish than a full-length script. An experienced writer can do a treatment rather easily because they know how they're going to approach the actual script. It's different for a newbie, who more often than not uses an outline to fake a story that they haven't fully thought out.

The production company here wanted a treatment in order to tell that my client understood what he was doing with this project, but in reality this guy DIDN'T have a clear idea. He was beginning with the unpromising concept of a troubled but sensitive teenager who discovered a whole new world of intellectual possibilities at USC. It was mostly an infomercial for himself as well as a chance to go back on campus to film the thing and show everyone he'd gotten a movie deal. Thanks to the personal baggage involved, though, he didn't know how to end the film and was stalled in developing the plot because his first impulse was not to tell a story but always position his character in a flattering light. On top of all that, he'd chosen a weird format for his treatment, full of different fonts and sub-headings that seemed designed to impress the reader more than convey a plot.

I scrubbed all the brittle stylistic gestures from the document and tried to muffle the fact that this guy really hadn't thought out a third act for his story. When he asked me what I thought, I frankly told him, "It's not great, but it'll do for now. We really need to concentrate on the script itself." At that moment, the client quit entirely. Wouldn't answer my phone calls or emails. His thinking was that he was paying me to make him successful, and I had the gall to say the results weren't "great." Suffice to say he never made his feature, either.

In college, I was required to take three foreign language courses for my major. I chose French. Every semester I'd flunk a French course. I finally managed to make a D in two and hung around for an extra summer session just to barely pass the third course in order to graduate. The way these classes were set up was that you'd talk in class and the instructor would correct you when you made mistakes. I'm self-conscious and hate making mistakes in front of people, so I was lousy at learning French.

When you write with other people, though, all your warts will be showing. You'll be sloppy. You'll try bad ideas, dead-end ideas, place-holder ideas until you come up with something better. There are worse ways to learn the process than to fall on your face right at the starting gate in front of everyone and learn that the world doesn't end. You don't want to make a habit of screwing up expecting to be indulged, but you have to trust the team enough to be creatively vulnerable.

I think it's great to walk newcomers step-by-step through the job. Saves time, saves needless anxiety. In the end they'll still have plenty of chances to slip up and learn that they don't have to be Teflon. That's a necessary step too.

Brian Phillips said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: Taxi had a wonderful moment. Reverend Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd) lost his Dad. He draped his Dad's suit jacket on the back of a reclining chair and the chair reclined, as if his Dad was sitting in it. Even though it was unscripted, Lloyd stayed in character and that's the take they used.

Were there any (save the "Almost Perfect" pie fight that saw the extra get her just deserts) great "found" moments like that in any of the shows you helped script or direct?

Jon said...

Can you share what was on the page behind the script title page? I can see through the thin paper "9/6/75. SUNDAY 9/7/75" followed by a list of several times. Were these the production dates? It would be fascinating to see the exact times when these shows were put together.

Johnny 2 Times said...

Hey Ken, can u post that Mary Tyler Moore Spec script?

Peter said...

Ken, Kelsey Grammer has spoken about the reports of a potential Frasier reboot:

Mike Bloodworth said...

Your comment, "We asked to see a copy of one of their outlines..." reminded me of something I saw on Orson Welles. When he got the chance to make CITIZEN KANE he knew nothing about making a movie. So he was given actual pieces of film with examples of different types of shots, e.g. a close-up, a two-shot, zoom in, etc. From that he made what many believe is one of the greatest movies ever made. That's one of the major failings of the various books I've read on script/play writing. They're loath to give actual examples of what they're writing about. In other words, they are more about theory than execution. You can go to Samuel French or other book stores and buy plays. But, I don't know if you can buy T.V. scripts anywhere. Sometimes it more helpful to have a good template you can use as an example. Even if, "...'every show has its own preference.'" it's still a general form one can draw upon. Usually, if I learn the "how" I can figure out the "why."

Janet Ybarra said...

Actually, one place I've seen (copies) of scripts for sale have been at various sci-fi conventions I've attended.

You might also find them online from online shops from the same dealers who show up at the cons.

E. Yarber said...

There are tons of screenplays posted online, free pdf downloads. Search for any film you like and you can probably find its script somewhere on the web. Even CITIZEN KANE was published with the Kael article and continuity record.

E. Yarber said...

And a lot of William Goldman's second book on screenwriting WHICH LIE DID I TELL? is taken up with direct examples of screenplay scenes he particularly admired.

Edward said...

@ Janet Ybarra

Listen to Episode 11 of the podcast. The Jeffersons story starts at the 16:40 mark

VP81955 said...

Do keep in mind that multi-cam sitcoms are written with a substantially different format than their single-cam comedy, dramatic or feature film brethren. Since Ken has written for both forms of sitcoms, as well as features, he may be able to illustrate this in a later entry (if he hasn't done so already).

MikeN said...

The title of the post is ROOKIE MISTAKES. I thought the story would end with, 'And we got no residuals or credit for that script because we never registered it.'

Anonymous said...

MANY television script collections have been published since the early 1950s as hardbacks or paperback originals- In my collection, from memory -  Sgt Bilko 1950s paperback script collections with writing by Nat Hiken and Neil Simon; Dad’s Army;  The Office; Seinfeld, Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds; The Singing Detective; Paddy Chayefsky; Reginald Rose, Rod Serling, and Horton Foote collections; Irving Settel’s Top TV Shows early 1950s Script anthologies;Frasier;The Honeymooners;The West Wing;Vonnegut’s Between Time and Timbuktu;Jean Shepherd’s The Phantom of The Open Hearth;Monty Python;Fawlty Towers;Ripping Yarns;Earl Hamner Twilight Zone Scripts;THE TELEVISION SCRIPTS OF PHILIP RAPP, FROM THE MARX BROTHERS TO JOAN DAVIS 

Mike Bloodworth said...

Thanks to all that replied.

Alex Bell said...

I can’t believe no one responded to your comment about a Frasier reboot. In the past, knowing Ken couldn’t possibly answer or respond to every comment, other commenters were happy to do it for him on something like this. Many of the old commenters seem to have left and been replaced by a different sort. Anyway, Ken wrote a whole post on the FRASIER reboot on July 26 if you want to know his opinion about it. He’s interested.

gottacook said...

Reply to Anonymous: I own or have owned some of what's in your collection, and often these aren't shooting scripts at all; rather, they're merely transcriptions of the final, edited TV broadcasts or movies. I always had the impression that these "scripts" were offered for people who enjoyed the original programs but didn't have a means of replaying them at home - that is, these were mostly published before home video became inexpensive. (In the case of the Monty Python "All the Words" two-volume set of the late 1980s, another purpose was simply to allow fans to decipher what was said - such as the name of the famous composer Johann Gambolputty de von aus ...[approximately 100 syllables]... of Ulm.)

Scott said...

I notice you were listed with an "and" on the title page. Had you not established yourselves as an "official" writing team at that point? Or did they just screw it up?

By Ken Levine said...

They just screwed it up.

Jahn Ghalt said...

A "trivia question":

How is the unit Full Metal Jacket more like Levine and Isaacs' Army Reserve unit than later units?

One answer - the early units are more diverse than the latter ones.

After the 70s the American armed forces were all-volunteer - self-selected - definitely more so than pre & post-draft lottery "selections".

Said another way, what would be the chances that Levine and Isaacs' future (post 70s) counterparts would VOLUNTEER for army duty?