Monday, April 20, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 68 – The Power of Research

All movies require research. Think about some of your favorite sci-fi or historical movies. Think about the best war movie you can recall, or the great Wall Street, courtroom, or medical drama that just came out. No matter the subject, setting, or time period, extensive work goes into getting the most accurate depiction of the world possible – often before a film even goes into production. I recently found this out firsthand.

My post-Apocalyptic script, which I’ve been working on for about a yeah and five months now, is, like any script in that genre, set in a devastated Earth where many things have gone terribly, terribly wrong. And, like most post-Apocalyptic scripts, the way in which things have gone terribly wrong was the jumping off point for not only the story, but for my writing process. Before I really began writing, I did (what I thought was) extensive research into the “what-ifs” and “what would happen” behind all situations imaginable for the world I was creating. I thought I did a pretty good job hammering out the points and was pleased to be able to answer any questions that came my way.

Then, about a month ago, a friend of mine who works in the development office at a production company with a first look deal at Warner Bros. got in touch with me. She wanted to make a push for the script, but could I answer some questions about the world first? I sent off my answers, and things quieted down for a bit. Well, about two weeks ago, I heard back from her. She was still working on the script, but all the creative/development people she showed it to kept getting hung up on the logistics of the world. Could I send another few paragraphs explaining how certain things would happen if the Earth “died” the way I wrote it? A page and a half email later, I felt confident that I had done my best to answer everything as coherently and completely as possible. At Onyx’s suggestion, I even emailed some physicists about specific questions pertaining to my script, and sent those off to my development contact.

Though I’m still waiting to hear back from my friend about my script, I’ll say that I was surprised by how much and how many times I was asked to give detailed answers about my writing. I know, I know. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I guess what caught me off guard was how hard a time my friend and her coworkers were having getting on board with some of the key elements of the spec. How many times do we go to the movies knowing that we’re supposed to completely cast logic aside? Or we see fire in space (cough *Armageddon* cough) and don’t bother asking how or why? How many times do you, the viewer, ask yourself how any studio was able to get behind something that was so clearly not researched at all?

One of the best weapons a writer has is his/her ability to research. My spec would have been dead in the water long ago if I couldn’t answer basic questions from the rest of the League and my friends, let alone from development staff at production companies. Make sure you know your world. Research as much as you can. Know what it’s supposed to look, sound, smell, feel, and taste like. Because, I can almost guarantee you, someone will ask, and you’d better be able to answer.

10 Ways to Save NBC's Kings

Last week, a new show was cut short before its time. Kings, the bombastic NBC hour-long drama starring Ian McShane and a host of mid-level character actors was exiled from its prime Sunday night 8pm timeslot to that barren wilderness that is Saturday night TV. While the ultimate fate of this show may be to compete against House reruns on USA it irks me knowing that it didn’t have to be this way. So here, I’ve compiled a list of 10 things that creator Michael Green could have done to keep his baby alive

1. A Killer Opening Sequence

Kings was touted as an epic – a modern retelling of the biblical story of King David. Complete with court intrigue, war, and the classic archetype of the young man who goes to the big corrupt city. The formula was sound. But if there’s one thing that the HBO and Showtime shows do well, it's giving you the impression of physically transporting you to another realm, and that starts with an opening sequence that grabs your viewer and takes them there. From Weeds to Six Feet Under, this is something that people have come to expect from the TV shows they take seriously in the way Kings so wanted itself to be. Premium cable shows usually farm out their opening sequences, so for small trailer and commercial houses these highly stylized and intricate sequences become the jewel of their reels. The Kings opening sequence is some stock footage of butterflies put with some digital butterflies on a background of butterflies and some kind of annoyingly serious music with a digital star filter and an age preset. Meh. Network shows on that level keep their opening sequences short and sweet for a reason.

2. Put It On A Premium Channel

Kings could have really flourished on a premium network – from the creative control the creators would have retained to the more selective viewing audience they would have reached, there would have been a chance for this show to flourish and grow, without worrying about why people aren’t switching channels from America’s Next Biggest Celebutard’s Got Talent. This show is just aching to be on a real network, you can feel it when you watch it. All Kings wants is to tell its story without Billy Mays interrupting it every 4 minutes to sell epoxy.

3. A Little Less Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Posturing

Oy, we get it already. Oh, look at you, Kings writer/producer/whoever thought that “clever” device up, someone went to college, yes they did! Someone learned about those cutesy-wootsy story devices in their craft class. What you say? There are two guys who are in every episode whom only one person in the world even acknowledges and have dry commentary on the goings on of the noble people they serve? My my, I’ve never heard of that before, so it’s compelling and makes me connect more emotionally with the story. You’re lucky no one else thought of this first, because then your ham-fisted attempt at copying a tired, overused device would only make me roll my eyes and fast forward on the Hulu.

-What are those guys doing over there?
-Who Cares?
-Good point.

4. A Little More Immersion in the World

Gilboa: This is a country that was recently torn apart by war and has now been stitched together by Ian McShane into an empire, (hell, I’d live there). Although all the talk in the show is the country this and the kingdom that, very little time in the series has even been spent outside the walls of the palace. There’s no sense of the space, or the place that these people appear to care so fervently for. The city is like set dressing, it’s not a character in the show, and in a plot where the fate of the country is so often put in peril and touted as the motivation for many of the characters’ actions, it’d be nice to give a damn one way or the other.

5. Focus More on the Ensemble Instead of The "Stars"

The two driving forces of Kings, acting-wise, were laughably lopsided. On one hand, you have Ian McShane as King Silas, a classically trained actor with a resume a mile long and the ability to straight up kill people with a derisive stare. On the other, you’ve got a Christopher Egan as David, a pure-faced blonde-haired blue-eyed twenty-something whose last big movie was “Resident Evil: Extinction”. As the main character, not much is required from him except to stand there and make moral decisions while the other characters scheme against him, like most major network shows, but still there are times where he just seems laughably out of his depth. Now, to be fair to Egan, I don’t know if the writing is at fault or his acting is- the writing is admittedly quite poor on the fundamentals, and I’ve yet to get around to making it all the way through the Resident Evil films, but it doesn’t look good, either way.

Then, you have this ensemble cast, which is dotted with “hey isn’t that the guy from…” moments. Not all of them are spectacular actors, but by the third episode I was a bit tired of focusing 70% of the plot on David and was ready to start cozying up to the other characters, like how about that wacky gay crown prince that has such a ginormous chip on his shoulder? I mean, he can’t be going all swishy Richard III all the time, I’ve devoted six hours to this show already and I’ve yet to see any reason why he wasn’t smothered as a child for just being so darn evil.

The evil gay crown prince. Never seen that before, nope. Someone would have to have a pretty BRAVE HEART to copy a character like that, tell ya what.

There are a host of remarkable characters, competently acted and sometimes even interestingly written that only get a line or two when they get on screen. I keep on getting the feeling that this is like a miniseries that got cut to a feature length, a bit of the “Mulholland Drive’s” if you will, but it’s a network drama, which should give it more than enough time to develop their ensemble cast competently and completely. It just feels rushed and that’s the last thing you want for a show focusing on intrigue. For one to pull off a show focusing on intrigue, you have to first convince your audience that they should care about whether or not character A gets stabbed in the back by character B. And honestly, as much as I yearn for this show to get a chance to say its piece in full, I’m sick of focusing on one quite uncompelling main character. Needless to say though, as always Ian McShane is fantastic.

6. A Better Advertising Campaign

Right now the studios are kind of at a loss to how to grab the 18-24’s, having been raised on advertising to the point that we don’t even notice half of it anymore, full page ads in newspapers (what were those again?) or even your average TV commercials (thank you TiVO) can’t hold our MTV and text message honed attention spans. I for one remember seeing ads in the subways with the Kings signature butterfly on it, and was quite intrigued, but there was no way for me to know what it was supposed to be – A cell phone add? Some new medication? And that was pretty much all the info I got, until the lukewarm reviews started showing up on blogs. For someone who spends over half their day plugged into their computer, I saw practically nothing until after the premiere. I’m seeing this more and more with big show premieres. If I want to watch something, I have to actively put in an effort to find out when it is and where, I guess because network TV expects their viewers to be watching commercials, but that’s something I know most of my friends and I actively avoid. For a show that’s trying to be an HBO drama for the primetime crowd, they could have taken a bit more out of the HBO playbook for this one. These kinds of shows live and die by their word of mouth, which leads me to…

7. Having Faith in the Show

Shows normally under-perform in their first season. Especially ones meant for people with more neural activity than your average According to Jim fan. I think that even given all its flaws, it would have found a core audience that would have carried it through. The first season would be a loss leader until around the finale, but once the DVD’s got out and more people got to watch it, the second season would have come in with a bang. The story of King David has a lot of really cool stuff in it, which I’m going to be sorry to miss, since they decided to spend their first five episodes harping on about health care reform and letting their children do script revisions… with crayons. I mean hell, Heroes found a core audience and that’s an abysmally written ensemble show whose characters, for the most part, are actively disliked by pretty much everyone who watches it. But they’re still watching it!

8. Another Draft or Three the Script

A couple of passes on the show bible could have really helped here. But by one person, not a committee. This show suffers from the same lack of authorship that your average sitcom does. Any the teeth that the show might have had have been ripped out completely by majority rule – so the crown prince becomes a stereotypical sulking evil gay, the princess becomes a chattering harebrained harpy who can’t shut the hell up about how much she wants to help people, but oh goodness her nether regions want David, and Macaulay Culkin shows up out of the blue for what appears to be no good reason. So far the only thing I know his character does is steal black pumps, and I don’t even care. Make me care, please, o writers of Kings. Let him be an evil transvestite or have some voodoo that destroys souls through their shoes because for the life of me I doubt that he got banished from the land for being an unimaginative kleptomaniac.

9. Alan Ball, David Milch, or David Simon

WTFOMGBBQ Alan Ball!David Milch iluvsuZOMG David Simon ROFL

Oh man, between these three guys, what they could have done with a concept like Kings just boggles the mind… I’ll be in my bunk.

10. Ian McShane in Every Role.

My god, what have I done...

Nuff Said!

Kings has been exiled to Saturdays at 8pm, and the rest of the first season is available on the Hulu. This was not actually a DVD Junkie column, but Kosmic just had to get it off her chest anyway. DVD Junkie is a weekly review of TV Series on DVD. It'll be back on a regular basis soon, but in the meantime you can follow her on Twitter @kosmicblues