Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Heaven & Hell part 2

After meeting Jonthan, I finally met Kaplan. He was, in my view, a sociopath, in that he didn't really know how to work with people, he laughed at jokes that weren't funny and was very awkward in group meetings. And, as I would learn, he would say whatever was needed for the occasion.

I had read a book once about a writer who took a job as a prison guard for a year then wrote about his experiences. He said there were two kinds of criminals; those who just had bad luck and those who were dead serious criminals with no conscience. The writer concluded that the latter often end up as middle management.

This was Kaplan.

Heartbreak Pass was a fictional town set in the Rockies and our lead characters were park rangers and a woman who ran a hotel. The woman was played by a once famous actress in the 1960's  who played opposite to actors like Paul Newman and Peter Sellars, among many others. She was also a teenager's dream. At least this teenager.

Essentially the show was like that 70's series Dallas, a soap opera set against the towering mountains.

Kaplan and I did not get off to a good start, he was a GenXer with a "soul patch" and a brushcut favored by Keanu Reeves in Speed. He had virtually no experience in writing or producing and how he got his job is still a mystery to me. The classic joke here is that he must have had pictures of the company's CEO in bed with either  a dead girl or a live boy.

Regardless, I set about to try and work with him.

Ed had already cast his opinion; Kaplan could not write as shown by the script he wrote which Kaplan had given to me earlier. Now we were in Vancouver, staying at the hotel where film crews usually stay, right in the heart of downtown. My first warning was how Kaplan screwed up hotel reservations, a tiny thing but the indication of things ahead of us.

There are others to mention, but I'll do that in subsequent blogs. For now it was the three of us in a hotel. Our job now was to begin writing scripts for the 1 hour show. The scripts were usually around 50 pages or so, good for the 48 minutes they would be shown. The rest of the 1 hour was commercials.

We needed 13 scripts for 13 episodes. At this point we didn't know who the actors would be yet. It was to be the beginning of many screw-ups and a general incompetence from the top down.

Vancouver was always a great place to be in, even if it was raining. I also had an ex whom I lived with, who was there and we remained on good terms, having lunch now and then. So, all in all, I hunkered down with a script written by another writer from outside whom I had worked with in the past.

His script was very ordinary and obviously with no real care. He didn't really give a damn because he got paid for the script regardless of how bad or good it was. And since it became my job to fix it up, he was long gone. We hired a few outside writers and besides my writing my two original screenplays, I was the guy who fixed up bad scripts.

Fixing scripts is a difficult thing to explain, it's all about depth and perception. Good writers make you turn the page to see what happens next, bad writers have you bored by Page 4 as you've seen it all before.  I had a pretty good track record for fixing scripts and would continue to have it afterwards so I went right into it.

The three of us would have dinners and lunches and talk about the scripts and life and marriages, at least showrunner Jonathan and I would. Kaplan would rarely talk about himself, and more than once told stories that were actually stories we told a day or two before. Except he would put himself into the stories.

My writer's script was huge, avalanches, helicopters, dogs and snow. All of which could easily cost more than the budget of each episode, which at $500,000 an episode even at that time, was very low. My job was to make it more interesting and to cut back expensive items like avalanches, or find some other way to do it.

We worked in our own rooms, which was unusual for me as I always worked with other writers on series jobs, all of us in the same room, talking over the story. I didn't think this was the best way,  as story editing requires participation from all writers.

But this was another warning shot I missed.

We also had conference calls with the network executive, Mark Litman, who was tough, take no prisoners guy who used hyphenated obscenities more often than not.  He dumped particularly on Kaplan's script... "this is sh..., pure shi...".

By week's end we exchanged scripts, theirs were very ordinary rewrites, no real attempt at making it better.  They hadn't addressed my notes nor Litman's. And as of now, we only had 4 scripts with shooting to begin in weeks.

Remember I was hired the week before. So it wasn't my fault we didn't have at least half the scripts needed.

Then came the hammer. They had read my rewrite and said they were both "disappointed" in my rewrite. Ed sat across from me and said they knew I wasn't happy being here with them, which was true to an extent. But I had bills to pay and I could make it work I thought.

I realized Jonathan was covering his backside by putting the blame on me, he couldn't blame Kaplan, as Kaplan was also one of the producers.  This would be the first betrayal of many from Jonathan. I went to my room visibly shaken and called my agent.

Then I called a well respected writer/producer friend, Kim, who wasn't surprised, "the s.o.b. has done it in the past and he's just covering his own job. It made me feel a little better but I still had a sleepless night.

The next morning at breakfast,I showed up ready and said I was leaving, I'm going home and they could do the show without me.

Jonathan, looking haggard from what would be a recurring drinking bout the night before delivered the words. "we thought you'd want to stay".


What happened between last night and today?

I stared at them for a beat before I could talk. "What about the rewrite?"

Jonathan suggested I "take another stab at it".

(Friday: The Rocky Mountains)

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