Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Sublime Primetime: Emmy-Nominated Writers Panel

Meant to write this up ages, ago, sorry! On August 24, the Writers Guild Foundation and the Hollywood Reporter presented their annual panel of Emmy-nominated writers. This year's roll call:

Carlton Cuse - LOST
Doug Ellin - ENTOURAGE
Damon Lindelof - LOST
Ian Maxtone-Graham - THE SIMPSONS
Cliff Schoenberg - PENN & TELLER: BULLSHIT!
Krista Vernoff - GREY'S ANATOMY

Dennis Miller was the moderator. He was mostly well-behaved (more on that later), and opened first with a zinger at the loooooong clip reel of all the nominated writers in all categories, and then gave a tip o' the hat to the guy translating the whole show into American Sign Language. The guy wasn't lit for the first few introductions and Dennis prompted him sympathetically, "How do you say 'Turn the fucking light on'?"

It was pretty meta -- and funny -- watching the guy sign the question and then answer the question vocally, signing his answer as he spoke. The signer guy was kind of a highlight of the show, amazingly expressive in his face and body. Must be an actor.

Dennis' first question to the panel was the moment at which they knew their show had hit the big time.

  • Doug: When people on the street started asking him and the cast if Vince was doing AQUAMAN.
  • Carlton: Seeing the ratings from the pilot.
  • Damon: Hearing his mother tell him, [Jersey accent] "I'm very interested in this Dharma Initiative." [/Jersey accent]
  • Ian: His show obviously was trundling along quite well before he got there, he's just trying not to screw things up.
  • Cliff: It's hit the big time? It is exciting that the show was getting critical acclaim, he said, especially since no one has Showtime.

    Dennis (I think it was him. My notes are sketchy and almost completely illegible) interjected a joke about why God is thanked at the Oscars but not in Emmy winners' speeches. If God was with Emmy winners, they'd be working in films.

    Ian and Dennis bonded over what's apparently a vintage Lorne Michaels note: Lorne apparently gets his boxers in a bunch when actors in a sketch set in a seafood restaurant are given red prop wine to drink.

    Work schedules and process. Damon reports 75 hour work weeks on LOST, during which they have up to 5 episodes in various stages of progress at a time.

    Krista reported the staff working on one episode from 8am to 1am, and how their workdays have been a normalish 10am-7pm or so, but they're now cranking hard to adjust a string of episodes since a story idea early on was changed, having a ripple effect. This also happened last season when it was decided that Derek and Meredith should stay friends. They originally weren't going to be.

    Doug's been working seven days a week since last August.

    Casting. Carlton reported that they built Mr. Eko's character around the actor, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Mr. Eko was originally going to be a real priest, but then they heard raves from their casting director. "You know who'd be perfect? That ass rapist from OZ!" Mr. Eko got a rework after that. And I'm now officially scared of the Googling that'll lead people here.

    Damon echoed this, that they wrote character to the actors. There was no script for LOST at its initial casting.

    Both Damon and Carlton admitted to a sort of "up the river" phenomenon when either spends too much time in Hawaii hanging out with the actors. "Holy crap, they're right! We're not writing enough for Sayid!" The other one will be back on the phone here in LA yelling, "Get out of there, man! Get out!"

    Early jobs. Dennis asked the panelists if, during their worst industry job they learned that things would never get better, they would've stuck with it. Most said yes.

    Damon seemed to mostly enjoy his early jobs, since they taught him how to write television, "which is very different from writing."

    Carlton talked about an international spy action show he worked on that for budgetary reasons was filmed entirely in Orlando, Florida. Um, international? Apparently they were exhorted to film in Epcot.

    Krista worked on CHARMED (and gave up a lot of money when she chose to walk away, she said), which she said devolved from being a show about female empowerment after the episode in which Alyssa Milano appeared as a mermaid, with the associated billboards all over town showing Alyssa in seashell pasties. After that, the male viewership shot up, the network started to ask repeatedly, "Can we get some skin this week?", and the show became about getting the girls naked in a San Francisco that was "mysteriously bereft of homosexuals."

    Krista also talked about one of her first experiences as a baby writer on an unnamed show, where the staff gathered around to discuss her script, some on conference call, and the showrunner opened with "So. Does anyone have anything positive to say to Krista before we begin?" Crickets. Crickets followed by an utter shredding. She joked that the goal for TV writers was to get to the top so they could do this kind of thing to other people.

    Damon described hauling last year's Emmy statuette to Mel's Diner, and loving the award's dangerous and aggressive styling. "It's like it's saying 'Fuck you!!'"

    Dennis noted that Ian looks like "Michael Bolton on a low-carb diet."

    Advice to newbie writers:

  • Ian: Read scripts, books, everything. Recommends the Writers Guild Library. Also, if you want to write comedy, be a stand-up comedian (I think this was Ian's point. Again, sketchy notes). "You'll get the unfunny beaten out of you." The other former stand-up comics on the panel agreed.
  • Cliff: Don't listen too much to people who "know everything." Write what you want to see. What you like.
  • Damon: Read bad writing. He got depressed when he read good writing...
  • Carlton: Another vote for reading, both good and bad writing. He used to read for a producer and most of the scripts he read sucked-- and those writers had jobs. Also, investigate the options that digital distribution is opening up like YouTube, viral stuff.
  • Krista: Yep, reading, also write and keep writing. Don't write one single script and treat it like a jewel. Also, she was a singing waitress for 17 years.
  • Doug: Write a lot. You'll get better.

    TV's a collaborative medium. Know how to play well with others. I forgot who said this, but everyone agreed on the point.

    The panel then took a few questions from the audience. Dennis got all snarky when a woman asked Krista how she felt about being the only woman on the panel, and to reflect on the state of women in the industry. Dennis' sarcastic sideshow to this nearly upstaged Krista's answer, but she persevered to note that a lot of women were nominated for Emmys this year but that she was the only one "self-flagellating enough" to appear on the panel.

    Krista also said that things were getting better for women in TV overall, and got out a gentle but pointed "You've been odd since 9/11" to Dennis that he didn't appear to hear in the throes of his eye-rolling and wanking gestures. Who better to comment on gender parity in television than a rich middle-aged white guy, right?

    I have no idea why Dennis reacted so strongly to a well-intended and not strident question (his behavior was directed at that, not at Krista, btw, who he seemed to like. At one point he suggested she get a talk show since her "rap" was so good). It's not like Dennis wouldn't have made some crack if things were reversed and it was just him and one other guy on a stage full of women writers. Something obscure about Paradise Island and Diana Prince, probably.

    "Thank you, Helen Reddy," Dennis smirked to the question-asker before moving on. Helen Reddy? In the age of Hilary and Xena, that's the best and most contemporary he could do?

    Last audience question was, who's one person who inspires you?

  • Carlton: Stephen King.
  • Krista: Anne Lamott. I got so excited when she said this, because I think Anne Lamott is amazing. Bird by Bird is one of my favorite books on writing, ever, full of helpful advice that's funny and genuine.
  • Doug: "A lot of neurotic Jews." Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, Mel Brooks, etc.
  • Ian: Jim Downey, SNL writer extraordinare.

    Dennis apologized for some early gag I didn't understand (or transcribe) about someone named Ballard, a cesarean section, and a whorehouse in Nevada. Anyone get that? He then thanked Signer Guy who indeed rocked, and we all decamped to the lobby for nibbles and free wine.

    I had white merlot. Cold red wine is a little odd, but not bad, especially on a hot summer night waiting for the fall TV season to start!

    Scribble94 said...

    awesome recap. thanks.

    Shawn said...

    Yeah, I second that. Great recap. Wish I was there.

    Shawna said...

    thanks! I feel like I was there.

    I've missed ya!