Friday, March 24, 2006

Don't screw with Chloe O'Brien

Even though the moving truck is due in less than five days now and I have barely made a dent in the packing and other get-out-of-town tasks, a short post won't make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things, I suppose. [rationalization mode off]

As John August advises screenwriters, writing for television as well as films these days is, well, advisable because it's "just another screen" and an additional potential avenue to explore creatively and commercially. As the home theater becomes more sophisticated, the home (not the theater) is becoming the focal point for people's entertainment consumption. Content itself, not any competing delivery media, will ultimately be king. So it behooves those of us new to the game to diversify our abilities and work both sides of the street, as it were.

Having sold my television in anticipation of the big move, I'm not in the best position to stay on top of all the hot shows that are currently being spec'd. But when I was connected, Fox's 24 was weekly (guilty) appointment viewing. Yes, it requires a suspension of disbelief worthy of Thomas the Apostle. Yes, politically the show has fascist undertones and validates torture as a justified means to an end. Yes, Jack Bauer has the magical power to avoid LA traffic at any time of the day. Nonetheless, I remain addicted - mostly because of Mary Lynn Rajskub's perpetually-pissed computer analyst, Agent Chloe O'Brien. Hasn't the encryption code or security system been built yet that Chloe couldn't hack around, always accompanied by a sarcastic mot juste and scowl.

As a source for your next drama spec, however, 24's "real time" format presents some issues that other more conventional series might not. Since each episode/hour is but one loop in a 24-link chain, it would be difficult to write a completely self-contained 24 script. One would inevitably have to also come up with the backstory that leads up to the hour that is the subject of the spec. Writing the first hour of the day, which is usually more exposition than action, might be one way to get around this issue but that feels like a bit of a cheat to me (and not as likely to fully demonstrate one's skills at plot, character, and dialogue). And the last hour of the day is mostly filled with Jack racing against time to stop the threat-du-jour, whose location has finally been divined. But if one could figure out exactly how Jack & Co. got to, say, between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m., I think it would be a fun show to try and spec.

So if you find yourself at that point, the good news is that there is a set of strict rules (24 in fact) with which any actions in the Bauerverse must comply. Thanks to Rob Griffith at The Robservatory for being similarly addicted to 24 but going the extra step of coming up with the following CTU commandments:

1. Given the chance to kill Jack Bauer, an evil-doer will not do so.

2. Given the chance to kill another major ‘good’ character, there’s a 50/50 chance an evil-doer will do so.

3. Given the chance to kill any other ‘good’ character, an evil-doer will do so.

4. When guarding an exit door, police officers will always stand looking out said door, instead of back at the hallway, making it easy for any evil-doer to slide up behind them and take them out.

5. When guarding an area, CTU and the police will leave one blatantly obvious exit path unguarded.

6. The CTU motor pool issues only large American-made SUVs, typically silver.

7. All evil-doers also drive large American-made SUVs, typically black.

8. Most any problem can be solved by opening a port.

9. If opening a port doesn’t solve the problem, then you must create a protocol.

10. Protocols must be followed, unless you’re Jack Bauer.

11. If you work for “Division,” you only care about protocols and covering your butt in case things go wrong.

12. CTU’s systems can increase image resolution while zooming in to see fine details.

13. CTU’s annual budget request for cubicle walls is always rejected, leading to the inability of anyone on the floor to do anything in secret.

14. All areas of CTU’s workspace are public and visible, except Tech1, where the most-important and often most sinister work occurs.

15. CTU can block all employees’ conversations and emails during times of crisis, but personal cell phone use is allowed without restriction.

16. CTU’s business jets are capable of travel at greater than the speed of sound. (Time the flight from Los Angeles to Visalia in season #2 for proof.)

17. CTU system passwords change seemingly randomly, causing employees to verbally give passwords to one another, thereby severely limiting effectiveness of said passwords.

18. Those on the ‘good’ side get Macs. Evil-doers get PCs.

19. Evil-doers will overlook at least one extremely obvious problem in their plans. As a generic example, Chief Bad Dude won’t remember to move his relatives to a safe location before implementing his extremely evil plan.

20. Cell phones will say “No Service” only at the most inopportune times.

21. Cell phone batteries never die, except at the most inopportune times.

22. Tracing a call will always take at least n+1 seconds, where n is the duration of the call.

23. If Kim Bauer is involved, her life will be endangered in some way.

24. You may think you know what’s going on. You’re wrong. You won’t know until at least hour 23, minute 45 or so.

Some funny, but some also functional if one finds one's self stuck at a crucial plot point and wondering "What would Jack Bauer do?" or "What would be the one possible thing that no reasonable person could ever believe would happen at this precise instant in time?" And if you really need something dramatic at about the 30-minute mark, just remember that any schmoe off the street can always weasel their way into the heart of CTU if they ever need to detonate explosives or release toxic materials into the ductwork. When they say "kill your darlings," the enterprising 24 writer will take that directive literally.

Just not Chloe O'Brien. Ever.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Declaration of principles

Both the moviequill and Gregg Hurwitz have picked up on the article in this month's Vanity Fair regarding screenwriter Zach Helm and his (apparently elusive) Manifesto.

As summarized by Gregg, the article describes how Zach came to turn his back on steady, but unsatisfying, rewrite and polish work in order to get his own scripts made. After seeing how the studios' sausage is made through gigs on proposed remakes of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Harvey, Zach did a curious thing for an up-and-coming screenwriter: he stopped.

Not content simply to work for work's sake, Zach drafted The Manifesto, a declaration of principles to which he would adhere come what may. The article doesn't set forth the entire tract but the gist of it is "don't settle." The quoted excerpts are illustrative:

Rule No. 1, Section One: "I will no longer allow financial need or career ambition to determine the direction of my work. I will not put myself in any position in which my work is owed to another party."

Rule No. 3, Section One: "I will not sell my work simply to the highest bidder, but instead to those parties that I feel will best represent and develop my work."

Rule No. 5, Section One: "Any deal struck in regards to my work will forgo any immediate financial gain if it may mean the surrender of creative control or participation in the work's development."

Rule No. 6, Section One: "I will not write for writing's sake. I will write only when inspired to write."

And then an even curiouser thing happened: it started to work. His first post-Manifesto script, Stranger Than Fiction, is scheduled for release in November. Starring Will Ferrell as an I.R.S. agent who suddenly is aware of a running narrative of his life playing in his head - one that only he can hear - it doesn't sound like the cruder stuff of which Will Ferrell comedies are usually made. Indeed, it doesn't sound at all like anything that gets made, with Will Ferrell or otherwise. But the point for Zach is that it was made, on his terms.

Allowing himself the freedom to fail also enabled Zach to use his rewrite money to buy back the rights to a script that he had optioned previously, but that had languished in development hell for more than five years. In short order, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium had Natalie Portman and Dustin Hoffman attached and will go into production later this year.

A third script, The Disassociate has Todd Phillips signed on to, er, helm. Dealing with a man who begins to question his own mental state when God begins sending him postcards (a premise that doesn't sound too far removed from Stranger Than Fiction, on its face), Helm is already drawing comparisons to Charlie Kaufman, not only because of the off-kilter subject matter but also the amount of creative control afforded to him.

Which you have to think is a good thing. Hollywood's thirst for retreads of 70's t.v. shows and classic remakes continues unslaked. There will always be scribes (usually several over double-digit drafts) to fill those well-worn shoes. But one hopes that just as many will follow Zach Helm's lead and write what they choose, find producers and directors that share their vision, and ultimately sell their work only when sure that vision will be realized on the screen.

P.S. Like Gregg and the moviequill, I too would not mind reading the whole Manifesto if anyone ever comes across it anywhere.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A month of Sundays

On Oscar Sunday, right about the time Jack was opening the last envelope of the evening, I was wrapping up my first weekend in Los Angeles ever. While Warren Leonard and the other Hollywood glitterati were inside the Kodak Theatre, I was several blocks away filling out an application for more modest neighborhood digs. Not apparently knowing that (good) apartments in the city are in shorter supply than other places, I had only budgeted a long weekend for the search. But, luckily, the application has been approved and it only remains to finish packing things up here in Baltimore and find a way to send them to the new place and meet them out there next month. I guess I'm really doing this.

Because time was fairly short, I didn't have much of an opportunity to see the usual sights. But some initial impressions of the City of Angels:

The weather really is fantastic, at least for an end of February. Sunny and in the 60's the whole weekend, it was like the best brilliant fall day you could ever hope for here on the east coast. But at the end of February.

Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols has a lunchtime radio show. Aside from the fact that it's a former Sex Pistol with two hours of commercial airtime a day, anything he plays will be infinitely better than hearing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Jane's Addiction's "Jane Says" ad nauseum on other purported alternative stations. But from the one show I heard, he plays good stuff.

It's easy to understand why everyone drives their cars everywhere: every place has a parking lot in which they can park. I think I saw one subway stop while I was driving (obviously) around. I guess I willl succumb to the car culture myself but I won't be happy doing it.

I'm more worried about the fact that there is an In-n-Out Burger right around the corner from me. I know that I will succumb to this temptation, though I may be slightly more happy about it than the driving.

All in all a fun, frantic three-day introduction to LaLa Land. I think I will be able to be more excited about the writing once I've actually completed the move out.

This past Sunday, popped down to the 9:30 Club in D.C. for the kickoff of Beth Orton's U.S. tour. Taking turns between songs with the band from her new album, Comfort of Strangers, and older tunes done solo acoustic style, Beth brought the music, bad jokes, and distinctly English patter. If you are enjoying "Comfort of Strangers," or have been with her since the previous albums, try and catch her if she's in the area. Quite the good show.

And one more Sunday show to come, when The Go! Team rolls into D.C. for a gig. Maybe a report and more unintentionally-impressionist concert photos to follow.