Thursday, April 19, 2012

"A Rewrite Night That Was Not Terrible"

How’ s that for an upbeat title?

“Rewrite Night” says, “This is me. This is what I do under pressure. Watch me shine in a group setting. During ‘Crunch Time.’ When it’s all on the line.”

“Rewrite Night” calls for the writer to rise to the occasion. With apologies to Lou Grant,

“I hate rising to the occasion!”

Or, more accurately, I hate “rising to the occasion” situations. “Rising to the occasion” is the “finals.” What if you flunk?

I mean, how does that look? Failing on “Rewrite Night” is not like in a duel where you mess, up and you’re dead. Here, you mess up, and you’re still there. A walking embarrassment, your subordinates are not sure how to deal with.

“Tough ‘Rewrite Night’, huh?”

“Well, it didn’t kill me.”

“Then it must have made you stronger.”

“If you believe that saying. And I don’t.”

With this less than “devil-may-care” perspective, you can understand my stepping into every Rewrite Room with a soupcon of trepidation.

And yet, sometimes, it works out.

I recall one night, when we returned from a runthrough of Major Dad, burdened with a script in serious need of revision, and not entirely sure what to do. As the show runner, it fell to me to motivate and inspire. That’s right. Me.

The assembled writing staff silently took their seats, a script in “Code Blue” condition breathing shallowly in their binders.

It was time to instill the troops with words of optimism and hope, energizing them to tackle the daunting undertaking we all knew lay ahead. Finally, I looked up at my gathering of subordinates and said,

“Can we do this?”

This was clearly an unconventional approach. Rather than rallying my demoralized staff, I was beseeching them to rally me.

My plan worked like a charm. Not only did I have quality writers, but a more positive and enthusiastic bunch you could never hope to find. On some unconscious level, I had chosen them for just that reason. Not only were they capable writers, but I had this ineffable sense they would never wilt under pressure.

(Their subsequent careers proved me correct. Janet went on to run two shows herself. Years later, Lisa became a solidifying mainstay on Mad Men. And our “Consulting Writer”, Miriam, remained a talented spark plug wherever she worked. Yes, they were all women, which was surprising for a “marine show”, but less so as my selections.)

My question met with resounding exclamations of “We can do it”-ness. I took them at their word. And we got down to work.

I will not burden you with the nuts and bolts of the rewrite, partly because it’s boring, and more partly because I no longer remember. What was wrong with the script? In my professional opinion, I would say…everything.

Except for the original premise. When an imagined “Grand Master” Major McGillis was playing “chess by mail” with (this was before the Internet) shows up to complete their match in person, McGillis’s adversary turns out to be an irrepressible, twelve year-old boy, on whom the family’s eleven year-old daughter develops an immediate crush.

All that was good. The rest, meaning the jokes and the story construction, needed lots and lots of making better.

The lesson here is not what we did, but more importantly, how we did it. I will borrow a French word here, as the appropriate English word eludes me.

We performed our work with elan.

Which expressed itself in the form of shameless silliness. Our “Rewrite Night Meal” had arrived including an overabundance of little, sawdust-tasting dinner rolls. There were more than a dozen of them that nobody wanted.

We were also amply supplied with toothpicks, decorated with these tufts of yellow, cellophane curlicues. An idea arose to put these two items to work, as signifiers of our advancement through this terribly troubled script.

How it worked was that, when we finished rewriting a scene, someone would skewer a dinner roll dead center with a toothpick and jab it into a large bulletin board, suspended on the wall.

This newly minted ritual somehow inspired us, promoting an inexplicable exuberance every time we finished work on a scene, and the call arose to,

“Put up a dinner roll!”

Each doughy impalement met with an eruption of celebratory jubilation.

Also, earlier in the week, Major Dad’s star, Gerald McRaney had instructed us that he no longer wanted his character to be referred to as “Mac”, though he’d been entirely comfortable with the “nickname” to that juncture. Apparently, his wife called him “Mac” in real life, and he wanted that prerogative to remain exclusively hers. The character “McGillis”, we were told, should now be referred to only as “Major” or “John.”

Since we were all in the habit of referring to “McGillis” as “Mac”, the demanded transition proved seriously problematic. As a result, as we discussed what was needed in the rewrite, we continued, on occasion, to call “McGillis” “Mac.” This mistake had to be corrected, the solution falling to the “tough love” of “Aversion Therapy.”

Our office was stocked with various types of toys, including enough water pistols to arm every writer in the room.

After a short break to “load up”, we returned to the rewrite, each of us keeping their weapon within easy access. Then, whenever somebody forgetfully referred to “McGillis” as “Mac”, we reached for our guns and squirted the miscreant into submission.

The strategy proved an uncertain teaching technique. People stubbornly clung to calling “McGillis” “Mac”, leaving the rewrite liberally punctuated with intermittent dousings.

I do not recall if these shenanigans originated with me. But I made it clear I was fine with it. And if that’s not leadership, I don’t know what is.

Between the squirt guns and the dinner rolls, we made our way to the end of the rewrite. Did the work go faster because of this foolishness? I have no idea. But it sure felt faster.

And the quality of the work? That was the most gratifying part of all.

The next day, we attended a runthrough of a massively rewritten script. The story now made sense. And the laughs, absent during the previous runthrough, were gratifyingly present.

And on “Show Night”, the audience went nuts.

Sometime during the evening, as their unbridled enthusiasm wafted down from the bleachers, I remember turning to my valiant assembled writing staff and saying,

“I guess we know what we’re doing.”

Yeah. That was a rewrite that was…more than not terrible.

It was really fun.


JED said...

I liked that story. I wish more leaders and managers acted as you did. Too often, the "leader" seems to think they got the job because they know more than everyone else. Often, the leader is the leader because no one else wanted the job. Not in your case and not all the time. But more often than not.

It sounds like rewrite nights didn't happen every week. Was it a wrenching decision to have a rewrite night if only a few things were wrong? Did a script have to be really bad before a rewrite was ordered?

Tania said...

Just loved these last two posts Earl.

You've answered why Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 didn't work - it was lacking in ridiculousness. How could you have a bunch of funny writers in the same room without milestone buns being stabbed onto a wall? It's just not believable Aaron.