Friday, May 18, 2018

As 13 REASONS WHY returns I reflect on why you should write what you love

13 REASONS WHY returns at midnight tonight on Netflix and I'm very excited for season two. You might remember that I wrote a 13-part series on the first season last year:

One result of that was that my friend, GAWKER V. THIEL screenwriter John Gary, insisted it was past time that I write a teen drama spec pilot. To him, it was unbelievable I had done it yet. (The closest I'd ever gotten was showrunning my college drama while I was still in college, but I'd never written an original spec, or even a spec episode of a teen drama.) He said something like, "You watch all these shows! You know all these shows. You should WRITE one of these shows."

Despite John's advice to write what I love, I resisted this. I gave the same excuse Bryan Singer gave for not pursuing Star Trek, "I think I'm too big a fan of Star Trek. You'd feel like you were watching WRATH OF KHAN" again.  I knew the genre too well that I felt paralyzed by every wrong choice. With every notion, I either felt, "I've seen that, and they did it way better" or "This is exactly the kind of thing that I've railed against because the ways it can go wrong are A, B, C, etc."

He said, "No you have to do it."

So I did... and people really seemed to like the spec.

And then to compliment it, I wrote a spec 13 REASONS WHY and despite MUCH anxiety about if I could pull that off... my readers are liking that too. I forgot what a relief it was to hear "This feels like the show and everyone's voices are in-character." So if nothing else, I have two strong samples that weren't in my portfolio a year ago.

What I'm saying is, I owe John and 13 REASONS WHY a pretty big debt. I tweeted a few of these sentiments and John added his own thoughts: "Write your favorite genre. Write the thing you love to watch the most. Write what you know the best. Write who you are. Write you."

One thing I did while breaking the spec episode was go back and rewatch season one again. The internal timeline of the show is a couple of weeks, and we're given a couple hard dates to work with in there. We know that Hannah Baker killed herself on October 10 and that the deposition that is shown in the last episode happens on November 10th.

Given that Clay is said to take a few weeks to go through the tapes, and that the show starts a couple weeks after Hannah's death, I was curious if the timeline as presented on the show stood up to scrutiny. Turns out that it does! Here's the way the timeline seems to break down:

The biggest assumption you have to make is that Clay takes the weekend off between listening to Tape 4 and 5. (I'm referring to each individual side as a tape just for simplicity. I know that technically that's "Tape 2, Side B" and "Tape 3, Side 1." It's just easier to think of it as one tape per person.)

That weekend isn't depicted on-screen, but the first four episodes all are clearly back-to-back and would take us through an entire school week. When Clay gets to the fifth tape, it's ALSO a school day and it's a case where it's not directly tied to the end of the previous ep. Further, the episode dealing with Tape 7 ends up spanning a school day, a weekend and the start of the next school week. So week 2 of tapes has some wiggle room, just so long as we assume that episodes 5-7 cover one week of time for Clay.

It's neat to see the writers were clearly tracking this, and it drives home just how glacially clay must have moved through the tapes compared to the others. He's the 10th person to receive the tapes, so they passed through nine people in the span of October 11 to the 21st. (Clay receives the tapes via mail on Monday the 23rd, which means the person before him would have had to send them out on Saturday the 21st.) It's doable, especially if you assume that some people might not have mailed the tapes and instead delivered them to the next recipient personally.

[UPDATE: Season 2 has given fixed dates to details that had to have been worked out from context earlier:

- the date of Hannah's death is stated multiple times on screen to have been October 9th. I had presumed October 10th because that is the page we see Mr. Porter rip out of his planner. I'm guessing that the writers' notion was that was the back side of the page that he ripped out... October 9th. Originally, I thought this was a mistake because we see Hannah get the tape recorder from Tony at school and if she's getting it on that Monday, she couldn't have killed herself the same day, but...

- Episode 11 of Season 2 attaches the date of September 30 to the party where Bryce is raped. This fixes one detail - giving Hannah an entire week to record the tapes and set up her plan. However, it also contradicts something Clay says in Episode 12 of Season 1, when he says that Hannah slit her wrists "less than a week after" that party.]

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Happy 10th anniversary, Go into the Story!

Scott Myers is the Cal Ripken of screenwriting.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Scott's blog, Go Into The Story, a site for which no introduction will be adequate. Almost as soon as it came into existence, it was THE hub for everything screenwriting related. Scott not only has maintained a daily posting schedule since the beginning, he's maintained a routine of 4-6 posts a day for 10 years. These include features like The Business of Screenwriting, Reader Questions, Daily Dialogue, Script Breakdowns, Script Downloads, Interviews with working professionals, links and featured looks at the most important news in writing and the industry.... and much, much more.

It doesn't shock me that when Franklin Leonard was looking for an official blogger for The Black List, he went straight to Scott. I'd be hard-pressed to think of anyone who's given more to the aspiring screenwriter community so selflessly.

It's not easy maintaining a blog with a focus on writing. I've been blogging just over nine years and a few years ago I started feeling like I'd run out of things to say. Even just aggregating other articles and keeping the conversation going on some of these topics became too much to do while working full time and trying to advance my writing career.

Then I look at Scott, who's kept Go Into The Story running even after taking a job as Assistant Professor at DePaul University's School of Cinematic Arts, even as he takes time to be a mentor for the Black List Labs, and maintains private script workshops and Screenwriting Master Class. Heck, last year the man released 12 e-books about screenwriting. For free!

If it wasn't for Scott Myers, there's an excellent chance that far fewer of you would have ever been aware of me. I discovered Scott's blog almost exactly nine years ago, some four or five months after I started blogging. I think I was getting MAYBE 30-50 hits per day to the entire site back then.

I was trying to think of ways to extend my reach when I ran across GITS. I instantly recognized it as a treasure trove of screenwriting information. I was instantly addicted to this look behind the curtain from one of the writers of K9. He had a lot of great stories from his time in the industry and wasn't short on practical knowledge either. And back then, he was getting a lot of engagement in the comments. After reading for a few days, I noticed that Scott linked to other sites and would spotlight other screenwriting resources. I commented one whatever post was his featured post that day, keeping my fingers crossed that it would have the desired result.

It did. I soon got a email from Scott. As I hoped, my moniker caught his interest enough that he followed it back to my blog and saw the few months of posts. I guess what he saw made enough of an impression that he was interested in finding out more about me. I got bold and asked if he could do a shout-out to my site in a future post and he offered to go one better and feature a brief interview with me. I barely knew the guy, but he treated me like a friend. It was my first experience with making friends as "Bitter."

When the interview went live, my traffic immediately jumped to about 500 and then quickly 800 visits a day. Over the years, it would steadily grow higher, but Scott's spotlight was responsible for the biggest percentage jump in my visibility and engagement. He put me on the map and I will be eternally grateful for that.

It would be over four years until I actually got to meet Scott face-to-face. By then we'd traded dozens of emails, often conversing about some of the big changes in screenwriting that were affecting aspirings. It was good to have a sounding board to help make sense of whatever the heck was going on with the then-new Amazon Studios and more than once, our conversations were centered on "What can we do to help good writers get better?"

Scott's students are a fortunate group, indeed. But everyone who's read GITS for the last ten years can also count themselves as beneficiaries of Scott's generosity. A kinder gentleman you could not meet, and a more enthusiastic screenwriting teacher you could not hope to find.

I bristle at the term "screenwriting guru," especially when it's applied to me. (When the Grim Reaper comes for me, I BEG you to make sure that term appears nowhere near my obituaries.) I recognize it's usually applied with good intent, but even so, it feels wrong to use that phrase in reference to Scott. I prefer to think of him as our Yoda.

Congrats on ten years in the blogosphere, Scott! Here's to another decade of encouraging young screenwriters!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Interview with Amanda Pendolino, author of WEDDING PLANNING FOR THE BUSY FEMINIST

If you're familiar at all with this little corner of the screenwriting blogosphere, you're probably familiar with fellow screenwriter/blogger/reader Amanda Pendolino. Amanda's been a friend for a while, one of many people I first got to know through blogging and Twitter long before we met in person. She's also the ONLY paid reader I recommend, as she's always given me fantastic and thorough notes. The woman knows her stuff.

Amanda's first book is available today on Amazon, WEDDING PLANNING FOR THE BUSY FEMINIST. I'll let the blurb below set the book up:

Wedding Planning For the Busy Feminist is filled with practical, funny advice from real brides, grooms and vendors about how to plan your dream wedding on a budget. It's also an empowering survival guide that examines how modern women feel conflicted about outdated traditions and expensive social media fantasies but kinda want the perfect wedding anyway.

You're mostly known as a screenwriter and a script reader, what made you decide to write a book?

I used to have a blog about the journey to becoming a screenwriter, and I missed that sort of straightforward prose writing. (Ok, I admit it, I also like telling people what to do.) I also just wanted something different from the features and pilots I've been writing over the years. Sometimes I think it can be invigorating to use a different part of your creative brain.

Why did you choose wedding planning as a topic?

I have always been a fan of those pop nonfiction/memoir books from writers like Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Chelsea Handler. When I read them, I think, "I wanna write one of these!" Problem is, I'm not famous and I don't have a 20-year Hollywood career to talk about. So I couldn't just write about myself - I needed a topic. When my sister and best friend both asked me to be their Maid of Honor, amid a time in my life when I got invited to about 10 weddings in 2 years, I accidentally became a wedding expert. So it felt natural to choose wedding planning as my topic, and I thought writing about it from the Maid of Honor perspective could add something funny and different to that world.

The title is WEDDING PLANNING FOR THE BUSY FEMINIST and you say it deals with "modern wedding culture." What exactly does that mean?

I think a lot of women feel conflicted about weddings because they can reinforce traditional gender roles and values. "The busy feminist" is a modern, independent woman who has established a career and identity on her own. She's excited to get married (to a man or a woman), but she feels a little strange and maybe even guilty about wanting the perfect wedding. She feels like maybe it's backwards or not progressive to want such a thing... but she wants it anyway! So when couples get married, they have to decide what they want and how much tradition they want to include or exclude. How do they modernize things when family members of a different generation might have strong opinions about what weddings "should" have? So I wanted to dig into those feelings and try to help brides and grooms navigate the world of weddings.

When I say "modern wedding culture," I'm talking more about the performative and personalized aspect of it. It's no longer your parents throwing you a party when you're 22. It's two adults planning (and maybe paying for) their own wedding and trying to make it an expression of their specific relationship. With the internet - Instagram, blogs, Pinterest and specific wedding sites - a lot of couples feel the pressure to have a perfect, personalized wedding. Like, the table numbers need to refer to a shared hobby, the favors need to be the bride's and groom's favorite candy, the bar has to serve the couples' favorite cocktails, etc. Sometimes this is fun - I love signature cocktails! - but sometimes it feels like a nightmare of pressure that's fueled by unrealistic social media fantasies and companies trying to sell you products. (Have I mentioned that weddings are hella expensive?) How did we get here, and how do we deal with it? Those are the questions I find interesting and wanted to explore in the book.

You're not married, so was your perspective informed more by "This is what I'd want" or through observation and survey of friends and family at their weddings?

If you’ve been a wedding guest as many times as I have, you’ve probably already thought about whether you want your wedding to include a photo booth (yes!), dessert bar (yes!) or lobster (what am I, the carpet king of Wisconsin? My cousin's father-in-law is literally the carpet king of Wisconsin, so I learned at a wedding that I like lobster!). But I surveyed over 30 brides and grooms from all over the world about their weddings, so the book is way more about their advice than about my preferences. My motto is "you do you" - I don't pressure readers to include or exclude any particular tradition or to spend any more or less than they want to.

While the book is "for the busy feminist," do you think it has utility for the woman's partner as well? Will it help them better understand the bride's desires for the big day?

Absolutely! I imagine that most of my readers will be women, but plenty of men are deeply involved in wedding planning. And I would love for men to read the book! I try to be inclusive of anyone who is getting married, whether it's a heterosexual or same-sex couple and whether it's a traditional or nontraditional wedding. I also talk about smaller wedding and elopement ideas.

Does this cover the planning of the bachelorette party? What are the biggest rookie mistakes you can make there?

Yes, I have an entire chapter on bachelor and bachelorette parties! One thing I learned the hard way is that you should investigate flight and hotel prices BEFORE asking party guests about potential dates so you don't end up in a garbage fire of reply-alls; it turns out that Vegas flights and hotels are way more expensive when there's a UFC fight and a dentist convention in town the same weekend. I also found that I should have chilled the F out when it came to making sure that different guests were having a good time. The hardest part of a bachelorette party is trying to please party guests of different personalities and ages. I worried that a 8-month old pregnant woman was being scandalized when a shirtless Magic Mike dancer was all up on her. But she was fine! After all, she's the one who brought the giant inflatable penis to our hotel room. Ultimately, it's about making sure the guest of honor has a good time, and guests generally understand that. Another big tip is making sure you're upfront with guests about what things might cost - nobody likes having surprise costs sprung on them later. People getting married should also keep in mind that they don't HAVE to do some kind of traditional debaucherous party. The book includes a whole list of less traditional party ideas. Several people I surveyed also told me they skipped the party altogether - you do you!

One of your readers walks into Kleinfeld's - how much more informed will they be than the average customer faced on SAY YES TO THE DRESS, and will their appointment be so successful that they won't need to call in Randy to save the day?

Haha, I love that you have seen Say Yes to the Dress and appreciate its intricacies the way I do. They will be VERY informed! I have a whole chapter on dress shopping, including an interview with my friend who visited Kleinfeld as well as other bridal salons in New York City and upstate New York. I've been dress shopping with multiple friends/relatives, so I walk readers through the process of ordering a dress and have advice for people who are excited about it as well as people who are anxious about how they might look. I also give options for people who want to spend less than $500 and who may not have time to wait for a made-to-order dress. The book's appendix also contains links to 95 different bridal gown designers, since I love dresses.

Assuming WEDDING CRASHERS is a documentary, do you offer tips on identifying and avoiding the slick guys just attending the wedding for some action?

Haha! I was always a fan of that movie - I think Owen Wilson's speech advice (I also have a chapter on How to Write a Speech) is pretty solid: "People want something from the heart." Nobody I surveyed said they had a wedding crasher, but the book includes a funny disaster story from a bride whose Best Man wouldn't leave the couple's hotel room after the wedding! That might be way worse! Also, a wedding coordinator I interviewed said that one upside to having your wedding at a hotel or other venue that does a lot of weddings is that its staff members do this for a living and know how to deal with situations like crashers. If you choose a campground or public space, you have no idea what you might encounter, and if you don't hire anyone to deal with it for you, YOU'LL be the one dealing with it on your wedding day when you'd rather be downing Prosecco and basking in your lifelong commitment. This also gets into why you might want a wedding planner or coordinator - I have a chapter on that, too!

I'm gonna pose a hypothetical: you have four friends who are getting married within an 18-month to two year span. Each of them wants not only a bachelorette party weekend out of town and also a bridal shower. Does your book offer any tips in politely dealing with the fact these brides' friends are not made of money?

I think the biggest thing is that if you want to have an expensive bachelorette and shower, that's fine - but you have to be OK with it if people decline. It's better to have someone decline to attend something (or even be a bridesmaid) than to have someone accept and then complain to you or make passive aggressive comments about money for a year. If including the most people is what you value, then you should make more inexpensive decisions - it's just up to you what your priorities are. These costs really do add up, so couples should be cognizant of what they're asking of people. You can also be definitive about things like gifts - you can tell people that you specifically do NOT want gifts at your bachelorette, you do not want people to pay for your drinks/dinner if they're spending money on flights, etc. You can also explicitly tell people that you do not expect them to hop on a plane for a shower AND a bachelorette AND a wedding.

Follow-up: And also, two years later, when the remaining single friend gets married and all four prior brides bow out of pre-wedding events because of "kids and money," how justifiable IS the resulting multiple homicide?

Hahah - This can definitely be a bummer. I hope couples remember that their friends supported them and spent a lot of money on them when the tables are turned! But also, don't assume that married parents don't want to attend things. One married bridesmaid I know loved attending an out-of-town bachelorette and wedding solo because she got to sleep in a bed by herself with no husbands, kids or dogs - something she hadn't done in years!

Anything else potential readers should know?

My aim is to be legitimately helpful - I break down confusing caterer gratuities, offer wedding day timelines and provide lists of ideas for themes, favors and unorthodox registry items, for example. But it's also a humor book with advice like "Nothing sexes up a ceremony like a hot usher." Because that is 100% true.

You can purchase WEDDING PLANNING FOR THE BUSY FEMINIST here on Amazon, in both softcover and Kindle versions.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Reader question: how to get writing feedback before submitting for class?

Jason writes in with a question:

I'm currently in a graduate program for English and Creative Writing and am finishing up my first screenwriting course. I appreciate your blog's very helpful information about what not to do to get a script read. In our class, we're told to get our work reviewed and critiqued by friends and family before submitting it. However, since the readers are friends and family, most of the feedback is a very unhelpful "I like it. Good job. Very interesting. Didn't know you could write." 

What I'm hoping you have is some advice for those in school trying to figure out where to focus their efforts and what to work on so their money isn't a complete waste. It seems that getting read by industry professionals would be the right picture, but as you've stated in many blog posts, industry professionals are understandably busy and there are legal concerns with reading scripts. So my question is, is there a format or opportunity to gain industry insight on a script without submitting it for filming consideration?

There are reading services, but most of them charge a lot of money for feedback and - in my opinion - most of them aren't terribly reputable. I have a hard enough time finding places to recommend for writers looking for feedback as they submit professionally - I don't think I know of any places that would be useful for writing students just needing feedback before they turn something in for a grade.

Is it at all possible for several of you in class to start a writing group where you exchange work amongst yourselves and provide feedback? That kind of peer review can be useful. Yes, you're being critiqued by people who are still on your level, but by virtue of being your classmates, they'll be a bit more informed than friends and family who merely can offer the obligatory "good job."

In your situation, that's what I'd be doing.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The EVERWOOD and 13 REASONS WHY pilots show how to make hurtful choices empathetic

I've been preparing to address the notes on my teen drama pilot and it brought to mind two pilots that were touchstones for me as I wrote: Everwood and 13 Reasons Why. And I hadn't noticed before they not only share similar scenes, but they're KEY similar scenes.

13 Reasons Why's pilot has two moments that I think are essential to getting the audience invested in the story. The first is an interaction between Hannah and Clay at the basketball game. There's a little bit of banter exchanged that halts when Clay realizes she's there to check out one of the players. "Don't be jealous, Clay" she teases. It's clear on the page he's pining for her, but the way the scene is played is essential. Hit just the wrong note, and her teasing seems mean-spirited. Instead, it's a cute moment.

The second moment is when she seeks refuge with him at lunch when rumors spread lies about her being promiscuous. Instead of being supportive, he's cold and hits her with a jealous barb about how "maybe it's better to wait." Clay looks like a dick there, but THAT was the moment that made me lean forward and say, "Go on..." You get a lot of notes in a pilot warning how you need to keep your characters "likable" but having someone be clearly wrong for human reasons is often more effective. He's not a bad guy, but he's having a teenage boy reaction. he was rejected, he's hurt, he's jealous, and in a moment he instantly regrets (also an important component), he does what a lot of boys would do in the same situation: act like an immature dick.

And here's the rub: on the page, both those moments play harsher. You don't have the performances of the actors to soften the blows or really make you feel the subtext. But that's no reason NOT to write the scene. As for EVERWOOD, there's a similar kind of moment...

Setup: Ephram has just been forced to move to a small town by his widowed brilliant brain surgeon father. he hates it, but popular girl Amy seems to take an interest in him. But Ephram is crushed when he finds out Amy has a bf and apparently was using him but then she explains herself. Her bf is actually in a coma following an accident. The doctors can't do anything for him. Amy befriended Ephram because she was hoping he could get his father to do something. It felt like fate that a world famous brain surgeon came to her town.

So you can't hate her after that moment. Was she manipulative? Sure. But it was for a good reason. You get why she would have done it and you get the sense that she's a nice enough person she might have been friendly to Ephram anyway. You empathize with her, you empathize with Ephram because he likes her and now WE like her too... and now you want these two to get together. But they can't get together and get everything they want because her coma boyfriend complicates everything. It's a perfect knot.

So fuck writing "likable" characters. Write human people who make human mistakes and make bad choices that have empathetic motivations behind them. When Clay hurts Hannah, it's awful, but I also thought, "I've done that. And it didn't feel good."

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Breaking down the pilot of REVENGE

Previous Pilot Breakdowns:
Veronica Mars
The Office
Homicide: Life on the Street

Continuing our Pilot breakdowns, here's REVENGE, created by Mike Kelley. Original tweet thread is here.

I picked REVENGE because it's a good blend of a procedural within a serialized uber-arc. There's a pattern to every episode - Emily takes down a different person who wronged her father each week - but within a larger advancing story. As someone who rebels against that every new series needs to be "more of a 13 hour movie, really" I like a show that can tell a longer story and make its episodes feel like individual chapters. Also easier to get an audience jumping in if they miss the first few eps.

I also recently wrote a pilot that I'm loglining as "REVENGE meets 13 REASONS WHY so this feels like an easy and relevant breakdown for me to do.

The pilot starts with a trick we all hate, but we've all used. A scene set some time in the future with a dramatic climax, then a flashback so the series will now show us how we'll get here. To be honest, the first time I saw this, I felt like it was a weird start.

A gunshot on the beach. A body falls. In the distance, a Labor Day party in the Hamptons. Victoria Grayson's holding her "Fire and Ice Party" to celebrate her son Daniel's engagement to Emily Thorne. We meet Emily, establish its her party. Daniel's walking on the beach. NOLAN walks up to her: "You shouldn't be here." she says. "That makes two of us," he retorts.

We also see Victoria's daughter Charlotte, who gets her bf Declan out ont the beach. Jack is hiding right near the body, right where the two teens strip and hit the water. Emily dials a number, Jack's cell rings, alerts D & C, and when they investigate they find the body. (They REALLY want us to think it's Daniel who's dead.)

Meanwhile, Victoria is giving a very dramatic speech about how she approves of Emily. It's clear she doesn't like her much, and Emily's acting makes us think it's mutual. C's screams from the beach draw her mother who assumes the body is Daniel... and we flash 5 months back. Honestly, I think this is the kind of intro you do when you're foregrounding the mystery, but nearly ever character gets a better reintroduction later when we meet them in the past.

Demonstrating my point, Emily's buying a beachhouse. Flashback to her childhood shows us she lived her with her father. There's also a double-infinity symbol carved into the post. We see it had meaning for her and her father. This house also is within sight of Grayson Manor. Even without the flashforward, we can get from that scene that Emily's up to something, Grayson Manor is her target, and it relates to her father.

Re-introduce Victoria, checking out Emily's arrival from a distance while her husband Conrad takes care of work. Charlotte comes in and is busted by her parents for sneaking out. Dad tries to defend that "She got straight As" Victoria: "No one's accusing her of being stupid."

Now we meet the blue collar Porter boys, Jack, who's Emily's age and Declan, teenager. Ultra-rich Nolan offers to buy Jack's boat "Amanda." Jack doesn't want to sell, doesn't like Nolan much. Again, it's a lot of people to set up so you do what you can to get their POVs fast.

Case in point, we now see Victoria presiding over a meeting of all the Hamptons wives, prepping the Memorial Day party and charity auction. Exposit that her friend Lydia is going through a divorce. She owns the house that Emily's renting.

That was about 13 minutes to establish everyone. And with the execption of the opening, most of those scenes work as character beats more than plot beats. With an ensemble like this, you need to get us into the characters first - THEN set up their schemes.

Backstory time: Emily is watching old news footage of her father being convinced of funneling money to terrorists to took down a plane and killed 246 Americans. We also learn that her father worked for the Graysons. Flashback to the FBI raid of their house. Young Emily... who is called Amanda here... screams.

One person who testified against her father: Lydia. And Amanda has taken photos of Lydia having a tryst with Conrad, V's husband. Guess what, that's our ACT OUT! So we know what Emily's avenging, and we know who she's after.

Hotel room - Mid sexcapade with Lydia, Conrad has a heart attack.

Jack and Declan are working at their father's bar. A guy from the bank comes. We know that's usually not good. Charlotte and her friends come in, trying to buy drinks while underage. Declan busts them, so she offers her phone number.

Outside the hotel, Conrad is taken to an ambulance. Lydia looks concerned, and in a sneaky move, Emily runs up, "My god, is this your husband?" She offers to help. Great way to put Lydia on edge without being suspucious.

Emily sees Jack playing with his dog. Flashback reveals Jack and Emily/Amanda were friends as kids. She even recognizes the dog, Sammy. (How OLD is that dog?) Present-Jack is clearly taken with Emily, and doesn't seem to realize she's Amanda. Gotta build out the relationships

Victoria meets Conrad at the hospital. the Dr. mentions Conrad should stay away from the "spicy bisque" at the South Fork Inn. V's no idiot. She clocks why he was at the inn. Tells him "Don't do it again." ACT OUT.

I like the dynamic we see there.

ACT UP. Memorial Day party - Emily's friend and V's party planner guides Emily through the party, dropping exposition. Important stuff, Nolan's richer than all of them put together, and Daniel is a party boy who paralyzed a girl in a car crash last summer. If you're writing one of these shows, you end up writing a LOT of party scenes, so get used to juggling action here. That means giving people a lot of conflicting agendas and cross purposes. Find the conflict. Here's it's that Lydia is dodging Victoria, trying not to be exposed.

Emily is introduced to Victoria. E also says hi to Lydia, manages to say "We met yesterday at the South Fork Inn. I hope your husband's feeling better." Madeline Stowe does a FANTASTIC job of playing every emotion you expect as she processes that. And she does it silently.

That's another writing lesson. Way better than a "you fucked my husband" blow-up AND it builds tension. We KNOW Victoria isn't gonna let this slide and she seems like the type to make Lydia stew, terrified of how she'll get even.

Meanwhile, Emily "accidentally" spills a drink on Daniel to manufacture a meet-cute meeting. I should also mention that Emily VanCamp is good at playing every scene like a cat that's toying with a mouse. Really sharp at switching to dead eyes then putting the mask back on.

Victoria kicks off the art auction, saying Lydia won the art auction for her Van Gogh. That painting was a gift from Lydia. Message sent. She also announces Lydia will be selling, not renting her home. Another message sent. Stowe has a sweet/evil delivery on "I hope the Van Gogh is a constant reminder of the friendship we shared." Emily locks eyes on her with this. Daniel comes by to offer a drink, and we ACT OUT.

So Victoria is fully established as the Queen Bitch of the Hamptons, and we've seen Emily as the ruthless avenger eager to make her pay. First time I saw this I was like, "I can't wait to watch these two play chess against each other."

Conrad later tells Victoria she was cruel. Victoria says he could have had anyone, and he chose her best friend. he says he proved himself years ago. Victoria says, not without tears that she helped him destroy a man. Conrad says she did it to save herself.

Nolan/Jack subplot. Jack needs money for his father's bar, decides to sell to Nolan. Nolan goes through his pics from the party and clearly recognizes Emily.

Nolan is waitng for Emily when she comes home. "Welcome home Amanda." She manhandles him like someone trained in combat. He offers to help. She says, "You're not a part of this." He says he saw firsthand what these people did to her father. When she declines, he says "I can be just as powerful an enemy as any one of them." That was the line where I knew I liked Nolan.

Another flashback: teenage Amanda released from juvie, ten years after her father's arrest. Nolan is there to meet her, bringing the news that her dad died six years ago. he's got a box for her. Amanda thinks her father was a murderer and a liar. Nolan says he wasn't. The box has many journals and a lockbox for an account in Zurich. David invested in Nolan's company and Amanda is a 49% owner of it now. (Remember what I said about his wealth?) The journals tell the whole story of how David was framed.

David's VO says he wanted her to know the whole story and that she needs to forgive. Instead, she uses it as a roadmap for revenge. There's a picture she has of a company picnic. She makes a red X over Lydia's face.

"This is not a story about forgiveness." Emily's there to takedown EVERYONE who framed her father, especially the woman he loved who betrayed him. END PILOT with the two women staring across the beach at each other, Victoria in her house, calling someone to look into Emily Thorne.

Okay, that was harder than I expected because I forgot how plot heavy things get in there, but let's recap the important pipe that was laid:

Emily has come back to the Hamptons under an assumed identity. She's incredibly wealthy and the only person who knows the truth about her and her father is Nolan. She's there for payback and has a ton of info that can be used to destroy everyone complicit.

Victoria is the ultimate target, but she's also the queen of the Hamptons and incredibly formidable. She's not an oblvious dupe, nor is she a one-dimensional villain. This is important. Emily is cunning, almost Batman-like, and V is equally ruthless. If you're setting up an ongoing chess game between hero and villain, I don't want the villain to be some vapid dupe waiting for her turn. It also helps if she's got SOME humanity. That scene where we see regret about what they did to David is critical for this.

So what else? Well, Emily still seems to have feelings for Jack, her friend back when they were both 10 or so. Jack DEFINITELY is still somehow carrying a torch for her. Here's the angsty triangle: she loves Jack, but her mission requires wooing Daniel. Also, there's built-in conflict about how he'll react when he inevitably finds out "Amanda" has been back and lying to him the whole time. (The show later has a great story about someone assuming "Amanda's" identity coming back and falling for Jack)

Nolan is the bridge between this romance and the revenge uberplot. For whatever reason, he wants to befriend Jack. (he's Team Jemily for sure). As a tech genius, Nolan also fits the hacker every show needs. BUT I like he's not overtly geeky like every crime scene lab tech.

So we have:
Conflict: (E v V)
Romance: (J/E, E/D)
Secret Identity tension
Procedural element (weekly takedown)
Uber plot (All takedowns lead to V)
Opluant setting: Hamptons

Oh, and lets go over the mysteries the flash-forward gives us:

Who is the body on the beach?

Why is Jack near the body? Did he shoot the person?

Why are Emily and Nolan showing signs of tension?

How did Declan and Charlotte become an item? (okay, maybe we care less about that.)

If Daniel ISN'T dead, where is he?

(Like I said, I personally don't think you NEED that flash-forward. The rest of the pilot does a good job of laying all the pipe and putting balls in the air. But if you can raise questions your audience cares about, go for it.)

And I can't BELIEVE I forgot to mention this but REVENGE is a modern (very loose) adaptation of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. You can imagine "a modern TCoMC in the Hamptons" would work as a high-concept pitch. Also, public domain, folks.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Breaking down the pilot of LIFE

Previous Pilot Breakdowns
Veronica Mars
The Office
Homicide: Life on the Street

Fair warning before I begin LIFE, if there's a pilot live-tweet I'm gonna fuck up, it's this one. Haven't seen it since it aired. I do not remember the resolution to the mystery, so if I miss something planted deep in the pilot, forgive me. I bumped this up in rotation when I saw it was leaving Netflix.

The show opens with sort of a documentary style. It's an infodump. Charlie Crews was a cop wrongly convicted of a triple murder - his business partner and the partner's family. DNA gets him off after 10 years behind bars. You might be noticing that a lot of these pilots have infodumps. Some use VO, some use flashback. Some use both. Some drop it at the start. Others wait until the top of Act Two.

After that, we pick up 4 months after his release. Crews is a detective on his first crime scene with partner Dani Reese. Notably Reese was what broke Sarah Shahi's type-casting as "the hot girl." She's good as a hard-edged detective and meshes well with Damian Lewis.

We're at the case of the week part of the show, murdered kid. Charlie shows his unusual approach to investigation, examines a nearby dog everyone ignored, finds a bullet. And then he finds a finger.

Top of ACT ONE - Charlie's financial advisor and lawyer do a documentary talking heads. We learn that Charlie got a HUGE (undisclosed) settlement for wrongful imprisonment. After the mythos tease, we're back to the case. Talk to the kid's, John, murdered stepfather. Charlie does the quirky cop thing to intuit the guy's high. His method pisses off Reese, who already doesn't like him.

Reese: "I'm the superior detective, I'm responsible for your actions. You get jammed up for this, I get jammed up." CONFLICT. Then there's a fun bit where Charlie doesn't know how to use his cell (because they didn't have them when he was put away).

Case-of-the-Week shows often become what I call "clue trails." Risk of "And this... and this..." I'm not gonna recap every step of the investigation. Investigation takes them to the prison where the kid's father's doing time. A few throwaways from the guards taunt Charlie about his past there, suggests they don't like him much. Look for these little moments in a pilot, stuff that reminds us who characters are.

Guards provoke Crews again. He responds with some zen platitudes. It's not the sort of lead character we see in a cop show. (I mean, the quirky cop thing has been done more often lately, but Crews feels unique.)

END ACT ONE - Crews pulls over his ex-wife's new husband, hassles him.

TOP OF ACT TWO - cops interview kid, Crews and Reese clash again. He says he knows she had to fight in this job "I'm not gonna fight with you."

Kid says John was offered information from someone who said that it could get John's dad out on a technicality. Met him online, claimed to be a lawyer. "John just wanted to get his dad out of jail and now he's dead." Possibly wrongly-accused convict is an obvious, but effective way to use the case to thread out Crew's history and issues too.

And now we meet two patrolmen who knew Charlie when he was on the streets, one of them is Stark, former partner. Helped take Charlie down.

Reese checks in with her LT. Making sure Reese is "working the program." (i.e. rehab.) Lt thinks Crews is trouble. "He got screwed and he's gonna get even." Nice scene between two female cops raising the issues they have to deal with because of gender. (Before I said so, did you default to imagining the Lt. as a man?) Lt. also is looking for an excuse to get Crews bounced. Reese admits he tipped off the kid's stepdad that a search might be coming and he should flush his pot. More conflict. Lt hates Crews. AND Reese seems to show whose side she's on.

Charlie's buddy Ted handles his settlement money, ex-CEO, put away for insider trading. They met inside, helped each other, now he lives with Charlie. The documentary lets us learn all this efficiently. Neat trick, right?

ACT OUT on a case scene, interview the mother, confirm her son stole money to pay the mysterious "lawyer."

ACT UP - Charlie gets call from his lawyer telling him to come tonight.

Next, Ted shows Charlie Google. (Remember, that didn't exist when he went inside either). Charlie: "Google me." Ted: "You don't want to see that." Montage of Charlie's "criminal" history.

Charlie's lawyer bugs him to call his father about his new wedding. Charlie says that his mother is dead because "He killed her when he wouldn't let her come see me." Charlie isn't inclined to forgive him that. Also, they're definitely setting up sexual tension between Charlie and his attorney. Then, more fun with Charlie and tech, this time bewildered by the Bluetooth in his car, and the fact his phone gets pictures "It's like living in the future."

Top of the next act: Reese asks why he became a cop again, he says the whole time he was inside, he still felt like a cop. She probes if he's going after the guys who set him up. he says no.

Aw crap. I missed how their investigation led them to the guy who killed the kid. Guy lost his finger to the dog, then "I watched Arthur kill that kid." He shoots, Crews has to find a position to shoot back from. in the shooting, bullet hits a packet of coke. Gets all over Reece (remember, she's recovering). she freaks out. he helps her into the shower to wash it off. Crews later asks her what that was about. she doesn't answer. Clue trail leads us to Arthur. Arthur is brought in for questioning. They jack him up on a parole violation. ACT OUT.

NEXT ACT starts with Reese and Crews. Offers her fruit. they bicker, but it's more friendly. We start to see how this chemistry is gonna work. They get a confession out of Arthur with the threat of putting him in the prison yard with the kid's father. Tense scene as he's being led there. He confesses.

Lt comes to Reese, says dept is ready to move forward with her complaint on Crews. Reese takes it back. So she's been won over by Crews. Seemingly. It's as small journey for her in the pilot, but a necessary one.

Charlie goes home, and we see him going through confidential files. Hidden in his closet, he's got one of those HOMELAND "Wall of Crazy" things, following the trail of events that led to his conviction. Suspects on the board... including his ex-partner and his Lt.

So he lied to Reese. does that mean he doesn't trust her? And is that because he doesn't know her? or because he DOES know her and that he shouldn't trust her?

You'd think we'd go out on that scene, but we get a small bit of Ted going to drive a tractor and accidentally running over Charlie's expensive car. (Don't ask).

Okay, so let's recap mythology:
-Wrongly convicted cop.
-back on the force
-secretly looking to figure out who framed him.
-EVERYONE's a suspect.

We actually only know bare bones here. There's a lot later eps have to flesh out in the backstory.

Crews/Reese - the core partnership, moves from outright tension to some measure of respect. Kinda reminds me of early Mulder and Scully, with Crews's quirky ways being like Mulder's investigative leaps.

What makes these characters different:
Crews - the zen thing, and his befuddlement of modern tech (which only goes so far.)
Reese - recovering addict. Could be a cliché, but it feels like there's a big story there.
Comic relief - Ted, former inside-trading CEO turned Crews's buddy and money manager. Gives us another world for Crews to go home to that isn't just him staring at his Wall of Crazy

Other stray tidbits that can be story fuel:
- Crews's father and the tension with him over his MUCH younger fiancé.
-Crews's history with his partner, barely touched here, but clearly will be important.
Lt's kinda pulling the "woman card" on Reese to get her on her side.

Format: We have a contained case-of-the-week, like every other procedural, but unique thanks to these characters. And presumably the long arc will advance each week, with the documentary helping exposition dumps when needed

(I legit don't remember if we ever find out who's making this documentary or how that comes into play. In the pilot, it almost feels like it could just be a storytelling device, like Modern Family's talking heads.)

Hopefully after the pilot, you either want to know who framed Charlie and why, OR you want to see him solve crimes each week. Ideally both.

Other Pilot Breakdowns: