Monday, November 14, 2011

The Difference between original ideas and copycats

Last week a new series premiered on AMC, home of Mad Men, among other series called Hell On Wheels. If you're wondering if that title suggests car racing, you're wrong. It's a town. But don't feel bad if you guessed wrong, a lot of people have.

But it's sort of a town. Actually it's a railroad camp set back in the late 1800's and is about the building of the railway. The plot line is somewhat simple, a Confederate solider travels there after the war to get revenge on some bad guys who killed his wife. 

And chaos ensues.

But it's not Deadwood by far. Whereas Deadwood gave us unique and rich characters set in a dirty, greedy gold mining town, HOW is filled with cliches and flat characters with little presence. And the ones that aren't flat are over the top, like Colm Meany, the English actor who is quite over the top, but all he succeeds in is that the other performers aren't up to his level.

And it's not doing well in the ratings.

This is about how most if not all great shows on TV are driven by passion and need. Deadwood was created by David Milch of NYPD Blue and a writer driven by those ghosts of creativity that only one person can have. And it was evident in the writing, even though there were other writers.  It was always guided by Milch's hand. It was his idea, his baby and his lift for the time the show was on.

Same as Sopranos, David Chase, the creator and writer paid his dues in shows like Rockford Files, where you can see his use of gangsters and eccentric characters. Finally he got his chance to write what he always wanted to do. And the rest is history.

Even sitcoms have this;  while Charlie Sheen took all the credit, it was obviously Chuck Lorre's baby all the way, as evidenced in the new series w/o Sheeb. Again, a writer who knew what to write and when to write it.

Back to HOW is a disjointed and often confusing series of scenes you've seen everywhere but yet it's lacking any true feelings.

In other words, you don't really fall in with the characters, nor the plot. Because you've seen it before. And Better. AMC had Broken Trails in 2006 with Robert Duvall, and it won awards and was a good western. But it was guided by Duvall who would not compromise. It was his story.

HOW seems to me to be a work by committee in which AMC decided to do a western without any specific reason or vision. And that's where it falls apart. Committees rarely come up with something good. Take a look at Congress.

To make something distinctive, interesting and believeable you need two things; a good story and a good cast.  Duvall's Broken Trails wasn't bad, but Lonesome Dove was better. First of all it was based on a Larry McMurtry novel and secondly it had Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Angelica Huston, Chris Cooper and Robert Urich and other great actors in it. 

Ultimately, everything starts with a good story.

Having worked on several series, I know all to well how, if not guided by a strong idea from a strong writer, you rarely get a good show. I only had a good show once, driven by a writer who lived his premise and took from his life. On the other hand I worked with psychopaths who only lived to drag a show down with their lack of human interest and passion.

You can see this attitude in websites like InkTip and others where producers list what they're looking for. It's usually something that is a copy of something out there that had minor success. Good example is Paranormal Activity, shot supposedly for less than $15,000 and earned well over $1 million.

So there's always listings for a "paranormal activity type script" or a fast car script or whatever was hot last week-end.

I even fall into that crowd with my Christmas movie in 2010 and now am being asked to write something for thanksgiving, Mother's Day and everything else. I've already mentioned this but it bears repeating. 

So how do I deal with copying something? I try, I really try to make it mine, and most of the time it works. After all these years, I have developed a "style" that one actress, when she read my script said "It's so Jim".

Yeah, I know, mushy crap, right. 

But hey, it keeps me honest.



  1. If I may interject here: calling Colm Meaney the English actor is a bit like calling Jim Carrey and William Shatner Americans.

  2. I knew I'd get in trouble with you, Chris. My mistake, eh?