Wednesday, May 31, 2006

David Milch at the Writers Guild Foundation

Last week David Milch spoke as part of the Writers Guild Foundation's Spring Storytellers series. A lively evening with a fascinating guy.

Shawn over at Agents Are Evil said he'd have a recap up soon, so keep an eye out for that. In the meantime, here are my random notes.

Process was the big initial topic. Milch says he writes for a certain number of hours per day, seven days a week. When pressed for the number, he guessed four.

He doesn't think about writing when he's not writing. He's not the guy jotting stuff down in the car, or having ideas while shaving. He noted that these thoughts are not true to his characters -- the ego suppression that happens while in the act of writing is not there when not writing, and drags down the characters' true voices.

Milch doesn't outline or do other conventional texty script preparations in advance of writing. He does massive amounts of research, from books to site visits to subject matter expert interviews. He wrote and published a sourced paper on the language of DEADWOOD, something I'd love to chase down and read.

The writing takes as long as it takes. Scenes often can be written or revised while in rehearsal or on set.

Of course, all this makes network programmers antsy. Even HBO, which Milch notes likes you to have your entire season in the can before you go to air.

He had a great quote about this which I'm going to butcher due to not transcribing it exactly, but it went something like: when the tao is gone, then talk of good and evil. Basically, his point was that effective storytelling is the essence. The airwaves are full of ineffective storytelling. In the absence of effective storytelling, networks make you stick to schedules.

Milch is amazingly present-focused -- the way he writes is testament to that. This trait also came up when he spoke about DEADWOOD, now heading into what's probably its final season (he was a little coy on the definites). He said that he and the others behind the show are doing all they can to make the show the best it can be, relishing that challenge and opportunity, and not thinking ahead to The End and aspects out of their control.

He suggested to the audience that we watch the show in the same vein, appreciating it in the moment and not looking ahead to when there are no more episodes.

Episode 9 is in post now, he said in passing.

Extremely articulate and lettered guy. Unpacked all kinds of references and allusions. Quoted from The Great Gatsby.

He won the prestigious Humanitas Prize. Twice. And bought a racehorse with the prize money. Twice.

Milch has survived multiple 12-step programs worth of demons: drugs, booze, depression, OCD. In college he wrote the same twelve pages of a novel by hand every day. All that is part of why he doesn't think about writing when he's not writing.

He doesn't type and doesn't know how to a use a computer, probably all the better since keyboard+mouse=bad bad OCD possibilities. Charmingly, he called the internet the "mainframe reboot" a few times. He also called his car keychain clicker a reboot.

Writing is not a solitary experience for him. He dictates to someone on a computer, with the words appearing projected on a screen (apparently the extras to the DEADWOOD DVDs show this -- must check that out). Also in the room are the other writers, students, friends.

Working with him must be a unique experience, and not just because in his more unhinged days he used to get into epic battles with his boss, including urinating on the boss's typewriter (to be fair, Milch said, the boss was not always at the typewriter at the time) and hurling the contents of the office out the window. The ST. ELSEWHERE staff, one floor below, were often distracted by random items plummeting past.

Milch once sold a novel to five different publishers.

He spun a really interesting thread around the racehorse Barbaro and that horrible break, using it to describe eliciting an authentic experience in an audience. With Barbaro, we the public had this infantile, kind of selfish fantasy about this horse winning it all.

Then the horse got hurt, and there was this repositioning of how we felt about it. We hoped the horse would be all right. Then, we learned that he might not be all right, but might in fact die -- the extreme ways that horses have been bred (for us) means poor circulation and frequent inability to recover from breaks. Then Barbaro was operated on, and was successful, and it seems like he will recover although not to be the champion he was.

Through this, Milch said, we the audience progressed from something experiencing something cliche to something genuine. I'm not capturing the detail fully, but trust me, it was an effective point.

His favorite $20,000 Pyramid category is Things That Go Inside Other Things (revealed when he knocked over a bottle of water).

He has a bad back and needs a lumbar support pillow for these events.

Director's chairs are not well-suited to lumbar support pillows.

In the Q and A, a guy referenced a lecture series Milch gave. Milch said it was available on the reboot, but after a quick search I've only been able to find a reference to it, not the DVD itself: it's called The Writer's Spirit: An Approach to Storytelling. Anyone know where it might be available?

He talked several times about the illusion of separateness that he -- and all of us -- experience, and the necessity of getting past this false isolation. We're so connected to the lives around us.

I see this coming out in how he lectures frequently and believes in teaching. I was also impressed at how gracious he was to everyone in the Q and A. Milch can no doubt be a tough sonofabitch (he ribbed the moderator, Paul Brownfield from the LA Times, on a few occasions), but he was warm and attentive to all who asked him questions.

Definitely worth going to hear him speak if you can. If just to hear the story that starts with him passed out in a Cuernavaca jail, missing the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and ends with him running down a New Haven street with a shotgun, blasting at cop cars...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Medium Well

I have a post about season finales in general percolating (I'm waiting for this week's final batch, particularly LOST) but can I just say now how much I liked last night's finale of MEDIUM?

It was an episode that was sort of an uber version of the norm, different and heightened, but that didn't have anyone act crazily out of character or undergo nutty stunt plotting.

Joe and Allison. Find me a more authentic depiction of a couple on TV these days. Their wonderful dynamic, spiky, touching, and sexy, lies at the heart of this show, and that took center stage here.

MEDIUM is quietly popular, not particularly fashionable for some reason, though the writing is first-rate -- a story editor friend on another show reports that no one wants to read MEDIUM specs.

I'm often amazed at how well it feeds both my sentimental and morbid streaks. COLD CASE, when it's clicking, does this too. I can pretty much be counted on to cry during every. Single. Closing. Montage.

And, yeah, the Dixie Chicks song was product placement, but it worked. Humming it now, in fact.

"How long do you wanna be loved? Is forever enough? Is forever enough?"


Thursday, May 18, 2006

Daytime in the Nighttime

My UCLA TV writing class had a guest last night: John Loprieno, best know for starring as Cord Roberts on "One Life to Live." John's now a scriptwriter on the show, and talked to us about writing for daytime television, which is a whole different satchel of eels than writing for primetime.

The show's head writer devises the overall direction and arcs, which is then hashed out into episode breakdowns by the breakdown writers. Those documents, basically detailed beat sheets, then get handed off to the scriptwriters like John.

Every Monday the scriptwriters get their assignments, and they have until the following Monday to write the script, 85 pages. That's impressive right there, sheesh! 85 pages a week at minimum, more if the staff is trying to bank for the holidays. No revisions outside that week. The draft you hand in is what they shoot. The writers work one month ahead of air, and the show shoots two weeks ahead of air.

The writers that work quickly then have time to pursue other projects (John teaches and writes screenplays), and they live all over the country, another key difference from primetime. By John's account, it's a machine, but a great gig, the well-kept secret of professional screenwriting.

John had all kinds of stories about what episodes were hard to write (big party scenes), how happy the young studly actors are to have a guy writing dialogue they would actually say, and the challenge of dramatically getting characters from literal or emotional point A to B when the outline has been written by someone else, sometimes with huge or insufficient ground to cover.

You can't mess with the tags (act outs/act breaks in primetime parlance), likewise anything in bold. Stuff in bold comes from The Network. Ah, so network execs are a universal pain, whatever time of day you're writing for...

I'm intrigued to check out the format of the outlines and scripts, since daytime script layout is again something wholly different from primetime TV or film, utilizing the two-column format folks may've seen in other media (some computer game scripts use two-column).

Really interesting peek into a different sphere of writing.

And I resisted the entire time from squealing, "OMG, it's CORD ROBERTS!" I didn't even ask him what they thought when they switched Tinas. Discipline, people. It's all about discipline.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

E3 Wrap Show

No risk of E3 going unblogged by all comers, so do check those out if you're seeking in-depth coverage. If you're looking for drive-by impressions, here are some random thoughts from my lone day roaming the floor.

I'm not a big swag-hunter, so undoubtedly there was cool stuff that folks were giving out that I missed. But the cleverest bit of swag I did see (and snag) was Microsoft Casual Games' "Serious Gamer's Disguise Kit," which contains an eyepatch and stick-on mustache for the Halo player in your life afraid to be caught playing Hexic.

Webzen polluted the show floor with blinky W necklaces. No way to wear one of those and not look like a knob.

Btw, I used to work on military simulation games and one year went to I/ITSEC, the simulation industry's national conference. It's like E3 but with real guns. Seriously, it was out of control. There was not one but several full-size HMMWV simulators, cockpits on gimbals, two-story MOUT installations.

The blinky items were the showstealer swag there too. Even if you're a buff military guy, in your pixelly desert camos and high and tight, blinky swag still makes you look like a knob.

And there are no booth babes at I/ITSEC. Anyone staffing a booth there could kill you with a cashew.

But I digress.

Webzen also gave out inflatable boogie boards, which people inexplicably pounced on. They then had to lug the thing around the rest of the day. If there's one thing that makes you look more like a tool than a blinky necklace, it's a flaccid plastic promotional boogie board strapped to your back.

I didn't have time to wait in line for anything, so I didn't see most of the prestige stuff that was hidden behind closed doors (sorry, Shawna, that means I missed Turok). I saw Will Wright demo Spore live at GDC last year, and EA already has my money for that title. Ship it!

I was curious about the Wii (who isn't?) but the line was beyond the pale. I was annoyed that they didn't even have anything about it that you could see without waiting in line like a (say it with me) knob, but I'm sure it's all out on the internets now.

Sony, by contrast, had loads of demo stations of the PS3, whose graphics are incredible. Really, HD is just mindblowing.

The PS3 games themselves, not so much with the blowing of minds.

Yeah, they all featured astonishing graphics, but we've seen all those games before. This was me, walking through the rows of PS3s and their 4-deep queues:

"Huh, a racing game."

"Huh, a WWII shooter."

"Huh, a fighting game."

"Huh-- OOH! Is that Okami over there on the PS2 aisle?!"

Okami is one of the few games I'm definitely going to play when it comes out. The gameplay promises to be inventive and intuitive, and the watercolor, calligraphic art shows what you can do with an "old gen" console if you're willing to *gasp* innovate.

Kentia Hall smells like ham.

A centerpiece of the Disney booth was the Pirates of the Caribbean section, which displayed a bunch of costumes and props from the second movie. Nifty.

I got a demo of the new PotC Online game, which is an MMO set in the world of the second movie. It uses the Toontown Online engine. The engine was designed for lower-end machines (smart), which works for cartoony shapes and basic textures, but completely fails to deliver the gritty, spooky, piratey goodness of the PotC movies.

PotC Online's stripped-down MMO play might work for mass market audiences for whom WoW is still too much, but the game looks flat and cheery and not at all a place where Jack Sparrow gets slapped by whores. Still, I signed up for the beta -- Toontown Online did a lot of interesting things well, and I'm curious about what lessons get applied here.

E3 attracts more and more of a marquee crowd these days, but my day was pretty light on the celebrity spotting. Admittedly I wasn't looking very hard. Apparently Paris Hilton was there and mangled the name of her own game, which is an easy laugh, but I'm sure the game's name changed a bunch of times in development. Dolphin, Gamecube? Revolution, Wii, anyone?

I did see Stan Lee, albeit at a distance. The crowd for Adam West (Family Guy game) was insane.

Oh, and I saw Michael Rooker. Homeboy was pacing around the Turbine booth. Is Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer more of a D&D Online man, or is Lord of the Rings Online more his style?

LOTRO actually looks pretty tight. Aion, a new addition to NCSoft's stable, also looks interesting, beautifully realized if not breaking a whole lot of new ground play-wise.

I spent most of my time around the online games, and was surprised at all the MMOs still trying to make a go of it. Sony Online had their own booth apart from the mega Sony mothership, with staffers desperately trying to interest passersby in EverQuest and Planetside. Not too many takers. Gods and Heroes might get an audience with its mythology meets Gladiator theme.

Ok, so you're Vanguard. You're a fantasy MMO looking down the all-enveloping maw of World of Warcraft. You gotta innovate to get some market share. What do you do? *Dennis Hopper voice* What. Do. You. Do?

I literally asked this of the booth guy (not in the Dennis Hopper voice), and he said that they'll let you have a mount by level 10. And that diplomacy with NPCs is one key new development of the game.

Yes, in Vanguard you'll have missions where you argue with a dock foreman NPC to get him to fire the dockworker NPCs. When you're not killing rats or their equivalent.

And, unfortunately, what I could see of Vanguard's visuals were subpar and the game framerate was chunking along on the Sigil booth's demo computers. Worse, I was told that the demoer had turned off a bunch of settings.

Here's hoping they can tune things up for their launch. The world is not a friendly place right now for elves in tights games without blockbuster IP or clever gameplay evolution or a new biz model.

I swear, going to E3 is like prepping for a hike. Bring a backpack and a bottle of water. Wear comfy shoes and dress in layers. Bring energy bars if you don't want to wait in a line 20 people deep for $7 nachos. I needed a nap at the end of the day.

And I missed out on a free massage! Next year...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

FE3d Me, Seymour

E3 is here. Hide the children.

For the gaming news junkie, e3buzz can't be beat. It aggregates feeds from twenty-two (!) sources all in one page, with a separate recent headlines section. No pics, no video, just mainlined RSS. Ride it, gamer monkeys.

I'm going to be at E3 on Thursday, and the prospect fills me with equal parts happy anticipation and crankiness.

New games, new consoles, outrageous booth displays, random connections with friends from the biz = cool.

Struggling through a noisy, hot mosh pit of a convention floor swarming with swag-hungry, ill-mannered fanbois who somehow got a ticket even though they aren't in the industry and gape at booth girls like they've never seen Real Live Wimmins before = teh proverbial suxx0rz.

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Them(e)'s the Breaks

I don't know about other writers of TV specs, but my enjoyment of watching the tube is tempered by a vague undercurrent of fear that a show I've spec'd will hit some story beat that I have in my own script.

That vague fear became a specific "Aw, crap" moment this week, as I saw on TV a story that's a ringer for one in a new spec outline I have in the works for that show. The story was similar enough in the broad strokes and even some eerie details that I don't think I can use mine in the spec, at least not in its current form.

I felt an oh so brief warm fuzzy for thinking in alignment with the show's writers, but that drowned in a cold bucket o' reality. I now have an outline with a hole in it.

So, what to do? It's one thing to murder your darlings, and another to have someone else suffocate them with a drycleaning bag.

Back to the theme!

The script's theme generated this particular story, and should be robust enough to spin out more. I hope.

Not every show on TV has themes, overtly stated or otherwise, but I find that the most compelling ones do. Those shows tend to convey a sense of larger meaning or human experience, beyond being only a series of events enacted by characters.

And, theme's a great safety net. If a scene won't play right, or your B story fails to click, check if it carries out the premise.

By falling in love with your theme rather than specific plot elements, spec writers faced with the moving target that is live TV may avoid having to off their true darlings and instead just have to maim those somewhat adorables.