Category Archives: screenwriting

Tales from the Writers’ Room: Part One

One of my favorite parts about writing for TV or film is the magical process of seeing my words come to life. In reality, it was a very talented props person named Ian, and not magic, that made the centrifuge I wrote about on Thursday appear in the entryway of our building Monday morning. But unless I end up winning Powerball, scriptwriting is probably the closest I’ll ever come to that genie-in-a-bottle moment: your wish is my command.  I hope I never become too world-weary to appreciate how special this feels.

So, I called this blog “Tales from the Writers Room,” but the truth is, I’m not actually spending much of my time in the writers’ room these days as I start to prep my first Bones episode. However, I do hope this kicks off my (sporadic) blog about the super awesome job of writing for a network television show.  For the uninitiated, Bones is a drama that airs on Fox, 8pm Thursday nights.

centrifuge

Some props, including a piece of the centrifuge, which will end up looking a lot more magical (and bigger) when the show finally airs.

At Bones, the writers each produce their own episodes and are encouraged to be involved in the producing process.  We are lucky.  Not all TV writers get to have a hand in production.

Location scouting.

Shall we shoot a scene here? Nah.

Here we are on a location scout.

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How ’bout here? Nah.

One of the scenes in my script calls for a bunch of animals in the Ookey Room.  Cue the animal parade…

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Director Tim Southam auditions a cat.

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Director/iguana whisperer.

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Now he’s just showing off.

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Seriously, someone give this guy the directing gig for Dr. Doolittle 6.

It was like one of the animal shows you hire for a kid’s birthday party. Except I was at work, getting paid for it. 😉

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Nibbles the Raccoon needs you in the conference room. ASAP.

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Best. Meeting. Ever.

 

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Filed under Bones, books, movies, YA, writing, David Boreanaz, Emily Deschanel, screenwriting, TV shows, TV writing, Writers' Room

We Are All The Hardest Working Man in Show Business

Watch me, now.

Watch me, now.

Yesterday, I started the 7-minute workout, the latest fitness craze made popular by an article in the NY Times. According to the article, “exercises should be performed in rapid succession, allowing 30 seconds for each, while, throughout, the intensity hovers at about an 8 on a discomfort scale of 1 to 10.” So, when I told my husband I’d done it, he asked if I’d remembered to work at 80% of my maximum effort. To which I responded: “Doesn’t everyone?”

My argument being that most people rarely function at 100% of their capacity unless they’re under special circumstances, like competing in the Olympics or being chased by killer bees.

It’s like when you go out for a run and finally settle into a rhythm, then a car drives by, or another jogger comes along and you speed up your pace. Turns out, you did have more to give, only you didn’t want to use it unless you absolutely had to, which, thanks to a hearty dose of shame, you did, as soon as that cute guy in the short-shorts whizzed by you.

I was thinking about the idea of pushing ourselves to the max and how it relates to being a screenwriter/novelist. There’s a lot you can say about showbiz folks, but the one thing you can’t accuse them of is not giving it their all. Be it the grueling dance rehearsals and tour schedule of a highly paid pop music diva or the hours a writer like me spends toiling away in solitude—the competitive nature of this business require that when we perform, we do it at no less than 100%.

I guess, in a way, being in showbiz is it’s own kind of interval training—sprint and rest, sprint and rest.  And we need those calm periods in between film shoots and manuscripts in order to slow down and reconnect with ourselves, to get more than five hours of sleep a night, and refill our creative wells. But the second we’re called to action, we’re off and running again. Because no one ever gave that break-out movie performance or landed a life-changing script deal by giving anything less than 100%.  

At least that’s what we tell ourselves each time our screenplays fail to sell, or when we don’t get that directing job or land that plum role. We rally, regroup, then push ourselves to do better next time. We double down. Then, we double down again.

Yet, in the rest of our lives, I think most of us operate at around 80%, at best.  Just last night I was talking about this with another mom (as we watched about 20% of our sons’ baseball game) bemoaning the fact that no matter what we do, we’ll never be better than be B+ parents.  I know this because during the first three years of my son’s life, I tried parenting 100%—hauling my floppy-necked infant to mommy-baby drum circles, my valuable hours spent filling ice cube trays with homemade organic baby food.  Turns out, 100% mommying is about 20% too much mommying for me.  At least it is if I want to leave space for any of the other important things in my life, like my writing, my husband, and my friends.

In general, I believe there’s nothing wrong with living life at 80%. It’s steady. It’s not totally exhausting. If life is a marathon, 80% is what we need if we want to cross the finish line. 

But what I’ve had to come to terms with over the years is that creative types like me don’t like to run at a steady pace.  We prefer pushing ourselves to our limits, even if we have to put ourselves in extraordinary circumstances and under extraordinary pressure in order to find out exactly what those limits are. Which is why we are all the hardest-working men in show business. (No offense to James Brown.) And even though it can feel utterly depleting at times, dancing as fast as we can without any guarantee  we’ll win the dance contest, I believe there’s great value in challenging ourselves. Like mothers who suddenly find themselves able to lift a Volkswagen off their child, unless we’re pushed to our limits, we may never find out how strong we truly are. 

 

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Hollywood Trend Alert! Is Quiet the New Noisy?

white_noise_tvNoisy is the new buzzword in television, and as several TV execs told me recently, the noisier the series, the better. In the old days, a few unsolved murders and a little sexual tension was enough to titillate the masses. But in today’s world of 10 billion channels, it’s no longer just about a cool, high-concept idea. For a show to succeed, it needs to make a frigging cacophony.

So, if your show’s main character is a time-travelling, gay, bi-polar cannibal who teaches Sunday school by day and by night, battles zombie prostitutes… congratulations! You might just be on to something. The equation for success in the TV biz being: More + More = More!

The word noisy so well-encapsulates the ideal of the modern television that it has officially dethroned Hollywood’s former favorite catchphrase, “fresh and edgy.” (A note to aspiring screenwriters still using the term “fresh and edgy,” you might as well describe your series as  “groovy” and see how well that goes over.)

It’s like that AT&T commercial where the guy asks the roundtable of kids, “What’s better—doing two things at once, or just one?” and the kids all shout “Two!” But when did we decide it was a good idea to listen to six-year-olds? These are people who actually laugh at The Chipmunks movies, people who prefer One Direction over Radiohead, people who’d eat an entire bag of marshmallows for dinner if we let them. Of course children (and their teenage counterparts) want noisy television. They are noisy. Which is why, whenever I find myself in a room full of kids, it takes everything in my power not to start shouting at them to zip their lips and calm the f*ck down.

My point is:  isn’t our world loud enough? Especially when it comes to TV. From the splashy lower-third promos constantly assaulting us, to the fact that roughly half of us now watch while simultaneously Tweeting, we have forgotten everything we once enjoyed about television—namely, the ability to lay down on our couches, get lost in a story, and forget all about our crazy lives.

And let’s not forget the shrill onslaught of commercials that come booming into our living rooms at alarmingly high decibels these days. After years of advertisers turning it up to eleven, the FCC has finally managed to avert their lecherous gaze away from celebrity nipple-slips in order to do their actual job. And for the past few weeks, they’ve been banging their brooms on the ceiling like the angry grandpas they truly are, shouting for advertisers “Turn that racket down!” The only problem: the damn commercials are so loud no one can hear them.

Of course, there are some cable networks that are making an impact with quieter, slower shows, like Sundance Channel’s great new series, RECTIFY. As many people have already commented, RECTIFY’s two-hour premiere episode was extraordinarily slow-paced—refreshingly, even shockingly so. But maybe that’s what it takes to truly stand out in today’s noisy world. Could it be that successful television isn’t just about who can create the biggest racket? Maybe being quiet actually makes the biggest noise of all.

Author’s note:  In the interest of full disclosure, I might be turning into an old crank, like my mother, back in the 80’s, who was baffled by my love of “quick-cut” music videos on MTV. “You’re going to get epilepsy,” she would warn as I lay, transfixed on the floor of our shag-carpeted family room. I recently went onto YouTube and re-watched some of these quote-unquote fast-paced music videos with my son, and we both agreed that by today’s standards, they seemed almost laughably slow.

 

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Filed under pop culture, screenwriting, TV shows

Writing for a Genre That Doesn’t Exist (Yet)

Aspiring writers, fans of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, and enhanced e-book enthusiasts should check out my blog post on BlakeSnyder.com today:  Writing for a Genre That Doesn’t Exist (Yet).

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Start with Failure: The Advice No Aspiring Writer Ever Wants to Hear

I was 23-years-old when I made my first feature film. It took me a year to write the script, six months to raise the money, two weeks to shoot it, and three months of editing. The following two years were spent trying to find a distributor and crying myself to sleep each night I failed to do so…  Check out the full story over at the Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing blog.

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Want to discover your life’s passion? The clues (you left) are already there.

I believe I was meant to be a writer.  And by that, I don’t mean my career choice was mapped out by the stars (but who knows?), I mean that when I look back on my life and the choices I made, it seems laughable that it took me until the ripe old age of 37 to figure out writing was my calling, since the signs were there all along.

Sure, figuring out I was a writer felt like an epiphany at the time.  But once I started to look back on my past, it was as if I’d left a trail of ridiculously obvious breadcrumbs all leading to one inevitable conclusion.

So, in order to save you years of struggle, I offer this:

Hilary’s Four Simple Clues for Finding Your True Calling(Trademark pending)

Clue #1:  Whom do you most admire?

I’m not talking about your childhood heroes, or we’d all be working for NASA right now, or have spent our pre-teen years being verbally abused by some middle-aged Slavic man in hopes of winning a gold medal for our killer “floor routine.”  I’m talking about the people you truly admire, after you grew out of your “I want to be a millionaire” phase and got into your teens.  Maybe you’ve always looked up to surgeons, or maybe you really respect your friend who works for a non-profit, or your local policemen.  For me, the people I’ve most admired have always, unequivocally been writers.  Even the film directors I like best are almost always writer-directors.   Coincidence?  I don’t think so.   It makes total sense that the thing we (secretly or publicly) hope to achieve is the thing we most esteem.

Clue #2: What were your skills and interests as a child?  What were your favorite classes in school?

I spoke at nine months.  I memorized Madeline when I was two.  I learned to read before kindergarten.  I’ve always had a great vocabulary.  I loved to read as a child.  In high school, I always liked English class best.  I wrote poetry.  Lots of bad poetry.  I was the Editor in Chief of my high school literary magazine.  I spearheaded a political campaign and smooth-talked my way into the governor’s office when I was sixteen.  In college, with the exception of a few filmmaking classes (most of them theory classes, as opposed to production) my favorite classes (and the ones I excelled at) were:  “Creative Writing,” “Suicide in Literature,” Derek Walcott’s “Playwriting” (which was technically only for graduate students, but I audited it), “Screenwriting,” and “Dramaturgy.”  Hmmm.  Perhaps if my life was a work of literature I would have picked up on this subtle theme.

Clue #3:  When you were first deciding what to do with your life/ starting your career, what were your favorite things to do?  Your favorite places to go?

For me, my favorite way to spend a college afternoon was going to the Trident Booksellers & Café on Newbury Street (by myself) and perusing books and magazines while drinking herbal tea and eating a veggie roll-up.   Might I have been craving the solitary life of a writer, longing to be surrounded by the written word and a good selection of hot beverages?

Here is a photo of my current tea drawer.  You be the judge.

In addition to my love of the Trident, I also enjoyed:

  • Going to poetry readings
  • Going to book readings and hearing authors speak
  • Going to indie films
  • Living life with a devil-may-case attitude because even if my recklessness caused my life to go to hell on occasion, it usually made for a good story.
  • Writing poetry
  • Writing short stories
  • Going to the John F. Kennedy Library, not to see the JFK stuff, but to visit the collection of Hemingway’s letters
  • Participating in (and occasionally winning) poetry slams at the Cantab Lounge
  • Making a poetry film with poet Sharon Olds
  • Watching Saturday Night Live and complaining that I could write funnier sketches (but never actually doing it)
  • Writing and directing a feature film (which was much better written than it was directed)

Clue #4:  What’s your personality?

I am someone who likes to make people laugh.  I tell a good story.  I enjoy being the center of attention but I also like (and crave) my alone time.  I am kind, empathetic, overly analytical, silly, hard-working, neurotic, weird, fun, and free-spirited.

In conclusion:

If you are like me, you might look at my personal list of clues and wonder how I lived my life for so long completely blind to the writing (oh, I like puns, too) on the wall.  But alas, hindsight is 20/20 and all of the things I did prior to becoming a quote-unquote writer—many of which actually included writing—lead me to where I am today.

So if you are looking to find your true calling, take solace in the fact that there is no “timeline” to your journey, just as there is no “wrong turn” you can make. And just because I call myself a writer does not exclude all of the many other wonderful things I also am, such as:  mother, wife, friend, film director, editor, yogini, blogger, cook, hiker, reader, and so many more.

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