I worked this summer as a reader for one of the network television writing fellowship programs. I was one of four readers who together read about 1100 scripts. Last year, when my writing partner and I did the same program, we had written one of 8 scripts admitted from a pile of 900; this year the number of slots were the same, so the odds were even lower. After talking to someone at Thanksgiving about the process of applying to another one of the fellowships, I decided to write up some tips I gleaned from reading such a big pile.
The trend right now for hiring in television is towards original material (“pilots”) rather than sample episodes of existing shows (“specs”). However, most of the writers’ fellowships still require specs. I think this is a good thing; I think it’s important to master a spec episode of an existing show before attempting a pilot, even if agents, managers and showrunners are less interested in reading specs right now. Even if you’re not planning to enter a script in one of the fellowships, I still recommend writing a spec of a show you love. Hopefully this advice will be helpful.
Dennis Hopper looms large in my mind as a weird hybrid of hippie and roughneck. I know him as an early Sunset Strip art scenester, showing photographs at Ferus; as the archvillain of Speed, an evil mastermind hiding out on the skids; and as the director of Easy Rider, which I half-saw one night in college. I picture him as a kind of Dog Soldiers Malibu-hills Don’t-Tread-On-Me cocaine libertarian, a portrait probably not entirely distinct from Hunter S. Thompson. I know he’s dying.
This video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz provokes a deeper consideration. Watching it, Hopper’s fragility leaps to the surface — the hard-luck cop in True Romance who dies rather than give his son up to Christopher Walken; the alcoholic coach from Hoosiers; flashes of tenderness, sensitivity, and weakness in dozens of Seitz’s clips. The art scenester appears an exponent of the avant-garde and a poet of nature and existence. It’s a moving tribute, well worth watching even at its considerable length for online video (24 min).
This, from Seitz’s short introductory essay, also rings true:
When I think about Hopper, I hear his voice in my head: the nasal Kansas vowels; the cowboy twang; and last but not least, the semicolons where periods would normally go, contributing to a sense that his thoughts, like works of art, are never finished, only abandoned, that he never really stops talking, that there’s always one more observation or pronouncement or dirty joke waiting just around the bend.
Jane Espenson’s warning against glib dialogue has been very helpful to my writing partner and me recently:
You probably loved it while you wrote it. You could feel the emotion and poetry in it. But when you reread it, it seems glib and overwritten. If you take the poetry out, it feels flat. In my opinion, the only thing wrong with the line is that it defies human psychology. We don’t get articulate when we’re emotional — the opposite happens. We get stumbly and tangled as we choke back our tears.
The trick, per Jane, is letting the poetry “creep back in when you write the next line, after the heat of the moment has passed”. Hopper seems particularly adept at a kind of unglib, poetic moment of rushing towards illuminated truth, as if the bends around which the observations wait all lead towards something bright, or fiery.
Jason Reitman was asked at a WGA event to give the aspiring writers in the audience something to keep them going through their darkest hours.
He said that he had hit a wall after working on Up In The Air for five years (this was part of a no-longer-subtle series of digs at writer Sheldon Turner, with whom he’s been forced to share credit and stage time by a WGA arbitration panel). He ran into Judd Apatow at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and asked him for advice.
Apatow said, “Write the ending. Because, then, theoretically, you’re done.”
And that was how Reitman did it (though pace Apatow he wasn’t immediately done.) He figured out the ending, and that let him go back and charge through things like the 20-page wedding scene. He knew where he had to go.
I don’t think I’m going to wait to synthesize my thoughts on Inglourious Basterds into one review-like piece. Lucky me, I don’t have anything else to write about. Forthwith, the trickle, to stop when the well runs dry or Big Josh calls the plumber. I’ll try to keep spoilers after the jump.
Impressively, IB features dialogue in multiple languages, instead of what Matthew Yglesias called “Hollywood’s more conventional ‘Nazis speaking to each other in German-accented English.'” Main characters speak English, French, and German; Nazi officer Hans Landa rotates effortlessly between all three and even dips into Italian in one scene.
The first “chapter” of the movie is one long scene, close to twenty minutes, almost entirely given over to conversation. Landa visits the home of a French farmer; his purpose, which he presents as mere formality, is to make sure that his predecessor didn’t overlook any details pertaining to the Jews who used to live in the district.
For the first three pages (in the draft hosted at cineobscure, the scene runs 17 pp; I’ll use the screenwriter shorthand of 1 page=1 minute of screentime), Landa converses in French, subtitled. Then abruptly, he says:
Monsieur LaPadite, I regret to inform you I’ve exhausted the extent of my French. To continue to speak it so inadequately, would only serve to embarrass me. However, I’ve been led to believe you speak English quite well?
Well, it just so happens, I do as well. This being your house, I ask your permission to switch to English, for the remainder of the conversation?
In the audience I sat in, we all laughed. No one wants to see a whole subtitled movie, so make use of a clunky pretext and be more “inclusive” to the audience.
However… (ahead there be spoilers)