Thursday, July 24, 2014

"Writing A Scene (In Which I Actually Write The Scene)"


Backstory:  Seven year-old Casey has lost a medal the Major had instructed her not to touch, and in this climactic scene, following a contentious inter-familial discussion, the Major is about to punish Casey’s transgression with a spanking.

And off we go.

INT. LIVING ROOM – EVENING

CASEY SITS FIDGETTING ON THE COUCH, AWAITING THE MAJOR’S RETURN HOME FROM WORK, SIGNALING HER IMPENDING PUNISHMENT. 

SHE NOTICES A SOMEWHAT THICKISH MAGAZINE ON THE COFFEE TABLE IN FRONT OF HER.  SHE PICKS IT UP, CONSIDERS STUFFING THE MAGAZINE DOWN THE BACK OF HER PANTS, HOPING TO SOFTEN THE IMPACT OF THE SPANKING.  AS SHE IS ABOUT TO SLIDE IT DOWN, THE DOOR OPENS AND THE MAJOR ENTERS.  CASEY ABRUPTLY CHANGES COURSE, PRETENDING TO BE LEAFING THROUGH THE MAGAZINE.
                    MAJOR

Takin' up archery?

CASEY, REACTS CONFUSED.  THE MAJOR GESTURES TO THE MAGAZINE.  CASEY TURNS IT AROUND.  IT IS “BOWMASTER MAGAZINE”, ITS COVER DEPICTING A PICTURE OF A BOWHUNTER TAKING CAREFUL AIM AT AN UNSUSPECTING DEER. 

                    CASEY

Yikes!  That’s disgusting!

                    MAJOR

That’s a matter of opinion.  To some, it’s a legitimate pastime.

                     CASEY

Are any of them deer?

                     MAJOR

Nope.  (THEN) Where’s the family?

                     CASEY

Out.  They didn’t want to hear the screaming.  They also warned the neighbors.

                     MAJOR

I hope they know this is only about you.  I don’t want 'em thinkin’ I’ll be goin’ on some rampage.

                    CASEY

Major… do we have to do this?  You are aware that you have a choice in this matter, don’t  you?

                    MAJOR

Have you had some coaching?

                    CASEY

A little.  But I understand the idea.

                    MAJOR

Look, Casey.  You had a choice too.  And you chose to mess with my medal when you were specifically told not to.

                    CASEY

And that was wrong, wasn’t it.

                    MAJOR

You know it was wrong.

                    CASEY

Yes, sir.  (THEN)  Maybe this is wrong too.

                   MAJOR

I don’t think so.

                    CASEY

My Mom does.  So does Elizabeth.  And Robin.

                    MAJOR

Spare me the list.

                    CASEY
And every kid I told about this in school.  Even the ones who don’t like me.  My really smart friend Jeffrey – his Mom’s a psychologist – he said you were a real “sad…something.” Which I didn't really get.  I’m the one whose going to be sad.

                    MAJOR

(HEADING TOWARDS THE COUCH) 

                    CASEY

Is it starting?

THE MAJOR STOPS, STANDING OVER HER.

                    CASEY (CONT’D)

Did you notice that you’re bigger than me?

THE MAJOR SITS DOWN BESIDE HER.                  

                    MAJOR

Casey, I take no pleasure in doin’ this.  The thing is,in the Marine Corps – where I work - discipline is essential.  Without it, the entire operation falls apart.

                    CASEY

I’m not in the Marine Corps.

                    MAJOR

Point taken.  But discipline is essential for everyone.  When I was a kid, I got caught trying to lift a Red Ryder comic book from Mo Peterman’s convenience store.  Well, my Daddy got wind of it, he cut a switch from the front yard, and he whupped me pretty good.

THE MAJOR MOMENTARILY BASKS IN THE NOSTALGIA.                                 

                    CASEY

Why are you smiling?

                    MAJOR

I don’t know, Daddy and I didn’t do a lot of stuff together... (RECOVERING)  The point is, I never tried stealing a comic book again.  So, as tough a deal as it is, I know this spanking thing works.  I remember him sayin’, “Son, some day you’re gonna thank me for this.”

                    CASEY

And did you?

                    MAJOR

Not yet.  But I appreciated the lesson.  Casey, you have to live up to  your agreements.  You didn’t.  And now it’s time to face the consequences.

CASEY SIGHS.

                    CASEY

Okay.


SHE GETS UP FROM THE COUCH, TURNS AROUND, BENDS OVER, HER HANDS SUPPORTED ON THE COUCH AND “ASSUMES THE POSITION” FOR THE PUNISHMENT SHE IS ABOUT TO RECEIVE.

THE MAJOR GETS OUT, POSITIONING HIMSELF TO DELIVER THE SPANKING.  AS HE RAISES HIS HAND TO ADMINISTER THE FIRST SWAT, CASEY REFLEXIVELY SWIVELS HER HEAD AROUND AND LOOKS HIM STRAGHT IN THE EYE, PLEADING FOR A LAST-MINUTE REPRIEVE.

                    MAJOR

(MILITARILY)  Eyes Front!"                                                                                                                                                            

CASEY TURNS HER HEAD BACK TOWARDS THE COUCH.  BUT, INSTINCTIVELY, JUST AS THE MAJOR IS ABOUT TO COME DOWN WITH HIS HAND, SHE SWIVELS HER HEAD AROUND AGAIN, AGAIN LOOKING HIM, PLEADINGLY, STRAIGHT IN THE EYE.  THE MAJOR IS DISORIENTED.

                    CASEY

I bet this doesn’t happen in the Marine Corps.

                    MAJOR

No.  (THEN)  Come on, Casey.  Stand up and take it like a…

THE ADORABLE LITTLE GIRL CONTINUES LOOKING AT HIM.

                    MAJOR (CONT’D)

Look, Casey.  There is no way around this.  You are only prolonging the agony.

                   CASEY 

(FINALLY SURRENDERING)  Yes, sir.

CASEY TURNS BACK TO THE COUCH.  THE “MOMENT OF TRUTH” HAS ARRIVED.  THE MAJOR RAISES HIS HAND TO ADMINISTER THE PUNISHMENT. THEN, SUDDENLY…

                    MAJOR

I just thought of something.

                    CASEY

(SWIVELING HER HEAD)  Is it good for me?

                    MAJOR

Sit down, Casey.

THEY RESUME THEIR PLACES ON THE COUCH.

                    MAJOR (CONT’D)

It occurred to me that there is something even more importantthan discipline.  It’s trust.  Discipline may be “the Steel.”  But trust is the “Cohesive Glue.”  In the Corps, every Marine’s life is entrusted to his – (ROTEY) or her – comrade.  Without that trust, you could never storm the beach.  You could never capture  the hill.  Do you know what I’m talking about?

                    CASEY

I’m just happy you’re not spanking me right now.

                    MAJOR
Casey, your behavior, though egregious (OFF HER CONFUSED LOOK)… very wrong…. is not habitual.  I’ve been around you a while.  You’re a good kid.  (DECISIVELY)  Here’s what I need to know, and I want you to take your time before you answer.  Can I trust that next time I give you a direct order not to do something....

                    CASEY

Absolutely.  (OFF HIS NO-NONSENSE LOOK, SINCERELY)  I promise.

                    MAJOR

Then "Punishment Postponed."  

CASEY HEAVES AN ENORMOUS SIGH OF RELIEF.

                    MAJOR (CONT'D)

Now don’t get me wrong  If this ever happens again....  

                    CASEY

(EXTENDING HER HAND, TO SHAKE)  It won't.  I've had a terrible day!

                    MAJOR

(SHAKING CASEY'S HAND)  Good deal.  (GETTING UP)  Now come on.  Let’s find your family and tell ‘em that “Attila the Hun” has called off the attack.  (TO HIMSELF, RUEFULLY)  This is what comes from pitchin' your tent in a houseful of women.

CASEY AND THE MAJOR HEAD OUT THE DOOR.

                    CASEY

It’s a good thing you are not like your Daddy.

                    MAJOR

Roger that, Marine.  Daddy’d have given you a spanking you would never forget.  (WINCINGLY) Then he’d have gone after me for letting you off the hook.

AND AS THEY EXIT, WE

FADE OUT

END OF ACT TWO.

(TAG TO COME)

                  


                                                            THE END

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Writing A Scene"


I had decided to rewrite a scene from a “Major Dad” episode produced twenty-five years ago, because it began troubling me that that scene could have been better.  This is not entirely uncharacteristic for me.  I have been known to rewrite blog posts after they had been published.  This is merely a continuation of that foolishness, only going back a little further.

And now we begin.

No, wait!

Oh, no.  More stalling?

No.  And probably yes, a little.  But this is important, if you want to be a writer, or if you are simply curious about the process. 

When you are writing, it is not good to just jump in and off you go.  Although – contradictory me – we invariably did that, the oppressive pressure of time denying a more calm and sensible approach, the result being that, twenty-five years later, you might harken back to that effort and believe that you perhaps could have done better.  (Note:  I no longer have that script, but the impression persists that that climactic scene was indefensibly “hacky.”)

When I took a cooking class once – I did not learn to cook anything, but I did drink a lot of wine and brought home an unneeded stainless steel spatula – I was apprised of a principle which works as successfully in writing as it does in cooking.

The principle introduced to me was called “mise en place.”

Mise en place” is a French-ascribed doctrine, directing the chef to get everything – ingredients, cooking implements, Band-Aids in case while you are slicing and dicing, you slice off a portion of an extremity not included in the recipe. 

Mise en place directs the chef to have everything they will need to get job done assembled and within easy reach before they get started.  It’s the same thing with writing, except instead of cooking implements and ingredients, what a writer needs “in place” is a mental checklist of instructions, to continually refer to while in the process of doing their work. 

The following internal reminders may not be listed in order of importance, or entirely comprehensive.  But at least they are in one place, and we can add to them later.  Maybe when I read this blog post in twenty-five years and I suddenly realize what I left out.

My invaluable though admittedly incomplete checklist includes the following:

Respect the Format

One of the rewarding advantages of writing in a multi-camera format (as I almost exclusively did) is that, because there are fewer scenes included, you can take the time that is reasonably required to “Examine the Moment.” 

A climactic multi-camera scene could last three to four minutes.  For a single-camera show – that’s, like, eleven scenes.  (Check it out some time.  Count the number of scenes included in a Parks and Recreation episode.) 

Traditionally the shows I worked on permitted no more than six scenes per episode.  It is hard to believe by cramming fifteen scenes into the same episode-length of time (or now even shorter) that something valuable in terms of depth and understanding has not somehow been sacrificed, or that transitions of insight and awareness are not unnaturally speeded up. 

Also involved in “Respecting the Format” is adhering to the expectations of that format.  Unless you are the Burns and Allen Show from the fifties or Showtime’s considerably later It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, your characters cannot suddenly stop the scene, and start talking directly to the camera.  (In those shows, that was the format, meaning that they were adhering as well.)

Also, like in the scene I am about to write in which the issue at hand is “To spank or not to spank”, as much of a momentary jolt as it might supply, it is a little cheesy to have the front doorbell ring, and in comes Dr. Joyce Brothers (Read:  “Dr. Phil” today) out of nowhere to deliver “The Word” on contemporary childrearing techniques. 

As in a play – not ones where the deus ex machinas show up with their “out of the blue” resolutions, the good ones – the characters, taking the appropriate time (within reason), have the opportunity to engage each other directly and negotiate their conflicts as satisfactorily as they can.

Which leads to the next point on the “Checklist”,

Respect the Characters

You have a series going on.  The characters’ parameters – what they will “characteristically” do and not do – are established in the pilot, or at least early on in the series.  The audience expects and deserves consistency in their behavior (unless they bump their heads, accidentally takes drugs or it turns out “It was a dream”, and then all bets are off.  (Note:  I have never written a show where such “uncharacteristic anomalies” ever took place.)

In the episode in question we have a “by the book” Marine who believes in spanking’s deterrent value versus a seven year-old girl who, like people in general minus a few aberrants, would prefer not to be spanked. 

You cannot have the Major suddenly go all squishy and abandon his principles.  You cannot have a seven year-old little girl arguing her case like Clarence Darrow.  (Or “Groucho” Marx.) 

As an honest writer, you have to take the characters as they are and allow those characters – and not the oh-so-clever writers – believably work out their difficulties.  The other was – breaking character for the sake of comedy or for any easy solution – is cheating.  And consciously, or unconsciously, the audience knows it.  I like to believe.

Respect the Situation

A crisis has come to a head.  The climactic scene is expected to resolve that crisis.  The Major cannot come home, the kid’s waiting there to be spanked, and the issue is ignored like it never happened. 

“Hey, Short Stuff.  Wanna go for ice cream?”

You cannot do that.

The writer has an agreement with the audience.  They buy into a situation – they are owed a resolution.  (Maybe I missed it, but at the end of Seinfeld’s “The Contest”, I was unclear as to who was the winner, Jerry or George – which, to me, was a diminishing disappointment to a landmark episode.)

And finally, though I am sure there are others,

Respect The Clock

I include this last, though for me it was always the first.  In sitcom writing, the clock – both in how long you have for the scene as well as how long you have to complete the work – was always oppressively ticking.  (That is why I never wore a watch.  I could not stand looking down and seeing my precious time inexorably slipping away.)

Since a sitcom’s length is finite, the professional’s imaginary though in significant ways real “inner clock” must keep them alerted to a scene’s being too long or too short.  It is a magical thing when a scene says exactly what you want it to say and is also precisely the right length – I don’t know how that happens but more often than you think it would, it does.  Like the right lyrics fitting organically into a melody. 

Those are the things that you have to remember – the indispensible checklist that must be kept firmly in mind.  (Along with remembering limitations on language and taste.)  Then you can get started.

As I unequivocally will tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Prelude To A Rewrite - Obstacles To The Challenge"


Backstory:  Recent thoughts about Major Dad led me consider rewriting the last scene of an episode of the series written twenty-five years ago.  Today, I thought it might be illuminating to consider the obstacles involved in such a challenging undertaking.

Confession:  This is a “stall” post, so I can push off that challenging undertaking into the future.

It has been close to ten years since I have attempted to write anything in the situation comedy format at all.  My final effort in that regard was a spec pilot script entitled House Rules, which my agent was unable to get anyone interested in. 

I reflexively realized that as a troubling signal, because he was a pretty good agent.  And because House Rules was one of the best things I have ever written.  Difficulty selling your best thing is an ominous demonstration that the buyers are no longer enamored of your once greatly valued but now demonstrably unmarketable abilities.

Note:  I was correct in my assessment.  I never sold anything in television again.

Besides being out of step with both current taste trends – Read: meaner – and the prevailing subject matter – Read: sexier – I was also an expert practitioner in a comedy-writing protocol had fallen into terminal disrepute. 

Imagine you are one of the most respected “Bleeders” in the business, one of a handful of top practitioners whose name immediately pops to mind in the therapeutic employment of leaches, a “go-to ‘A’-Lister” in the “leaching” fraternity.  Still riding high, you take notice of the advancements in the “healing practices”, and you realize that the medical profession as a whole is inexorably moving away from “leaching.”

Prognosis:  Hard times ahead for the once hotshot “Bleeder” and his family.

As with “leaching”, so with writing multi-camera situation comedies.

Multi-camera comedies were (then 22-minute) “mini-plays”, filmed (or, more inexpensively, videotaped) in front of a live studio audience.  For more than forty years – from the 1960’s – The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Danny Thomas Show – to the mid-00’s – Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends that’s the way situation comedies were produced.

Since multi-camera writing was the sitcomical M.O. of the era, that’s what I trained myself to do, honing my skills at MTM (The Mary Tyler Moore Company), and plying them successfully for the next twenty-five years.  Over time during that period, I was considered one of the Top-of-the-Line “Bleeders”… I mean, sitcom writers in the business.

Then, as viewing preferences and production technology evolved, the audience (finally) tiring of the multi-camera format, and digital recording making filming shows using a single camera more cost-effective, the younger TV writers, identifying more closely with movies than with plays, began creating more and more series following cinematic template – short films, if you will, producing The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, etc.   

Single-camera comedies became the stylistic “Flavor of the Month”, relegating the stodgier multi-camera comedies into, if not oblivion, then at least what would appear to be permanent marginality.

So I haven’t done it in a while.  And there are few to no shining examples currently on the air that I can study, to help knock the cobwebs off of my once razor-sharp “skill set.”  Imagine a ballplayer, long out of the game, stepping up to the plate, hoping to swing the bat with less than embarrassing consequences.  A respectable outcome appears highly unlikely.

(That’s me, soliciting sympathy for my upcoming attempt.)

Why do I want to do it?

“Crazy” comes immediately to mind.  My best efforts would still be applied to an arthritic format, making an appreciative reception of the final product precariously doubtful.  Plus, as just mentioned, there is a lot of rust on this aging former hotshot.

I guess it’s because, thinking back, I have developed retroactive reservations about the climactic scene of “Discipline”, a Major Dad episode concerning the contentious issue of spanking.

An ideologically divided “Rewrite Room” over a script in which the Major is determined to spank his seven year-old stepdaughter for her deliberate disobedience created a difficult atmosphere to do our best work, the result producing, at least in my recollection, a less than admirable final version of that scene.

At the time I’m sure I was just happy to ultimately get the thing done.  But, as the show runner taking total responsibility for the finished product, it was not my Finest Hour.  (Though I may be overrating my abilities, and underrating how difficult it is to turn out consistently first class material under a grueling sitcom-producing schedule.)

Disclaimers, rationalizations and excuses aside, it occurred to me I could do better.

And I just thought I would give it a try.