Friday, June 23, 2017

H&H - Part 9 The Game of Writing



I woke up early one morning when it was barely getting light outside and realized I could get a great shot of the sun rising over the mountains. I grabbed my trusty Nikon and tripod and drove up to a spot where I knew I could frame the photo with pine trees. The sun came up, hung in for about 10 minutes and I squeezed off a 36 roll of Fuji Velvia. It was worth it.

But later in the morning I  have a meeting with Kaplan that morning. The fact that I should even entertain his presence irks me to no end. This person has absolutely no experience at the job of producing nor has he the ability. I have worked with bad producers and good ones, but he is simply nothing.

He has his notes on my script and it's not long before we differ on almost every note and then he comes up with one line; "I know the characters better than you".

The fact that I and Jonathan have done more to the characters in the series in the last month than Kaplan did in the alleged 2 years that this was being developed. I've heard his wife is a marketing director at a radio station, Rino's wife is a psychiatrist. 

I'm in interesting company. 

I leave to go to the writer's office where Rino and I re-arrange the desks. Both of us place our desks so that our computer screens face us and the wall behind us rather than face the open area. This way we can avoid anyone coming in and reading over our shoulder as well as being able to face unwanted guests.

I call Jonathan who has remained in his condo for 3 days now, and Rino and I haven't heard from him. He answers, and agrees about the worthlessness of Kaplan's notes. In fact he disagrees with almost everything Kaplan's done since we arrived here. This goes along with the network guy, Litman, who constantly trashes Kaplan's script.

Jonathan asks me about Rino, if we get along and I tell him it seems we do get along. This is not an easy show mostly because of the two producers, Mahon and Kaplan. Mahon hates having to defer to upstart Kaplan, who simply is bluffing his way through this entire show.

You might wonder how we know Kaplan's script and notes are bad. Because after years of writing, you get to know what's good and what's bad, what works and what won't. My agent had a great comment once when I asked him to read a script a friend of mine wrote. Frank said he'd be happy to read it, he knew how hard it was to write a screenplay (incidentally I use both screenplay and script terms- it's the same thing). 

Then Frank added, "I'd be happy to read the first 3 pages". 

Just the first 3 pages? But a screenplay is at least 100 pages. Why only 3?Because a pro in this business can tell by 3 pages if the writer is good or not. Gordon Ramsay can tell if a crabcake is fresh or not in even less time. A pro knows their business.

Later Rino and I talk more and, while there is a secret side to him, almost bordering on paranoia ("they are watching us")  we do seem to be able to work together with some respect and trust. To a point. He reminds me "it's only a job". Then to fuel my paranoia, Jonathan shows up and mentions he's going for dinner. Rino joins him but they don't ask me.

And I learn that Rino has a similar condo to Jonathan's.  I make a note to always ask for "favored nations". It can actually be put into a contract and has been in several of mine. What it means is that I will get the same treatment and perqs as the other writers and/or producers.

Yes, I know, it sounds childish. But we do create the work, without us there is no show. And it's not so much about special treatment but that we are accorded the same treatment as our peers. The only time I used it was in Luxembourg when I requested a better car than a horrible Citroen with a speedometer in the dash and got a small Ford instead.

Later that night I meet Simone,  the local production secretary and her husband at the Peak bar. Both down-to-earth people who are refreshing after dealing with the egos and insecurities of writers, actors and producers.  Simone dislikes having to get Kaplan's laundry and make phone calls for him as well as other unreasonable demands. She states that he needs a good kick in the ass.  I agree.

The locals here are almost all very friendly and helpful, many are excited to be working on a TV series. They don't always care for the special treatment some people demand, and I can empathize with that.

I walk home again, seven blocks, and pass deer sleeping in people's yards while TV sets flicker through the windows into the cold night air. The first episode is beginning to prepare tomorrow and this is the first test of the production unit to see if this whole crazy thing works.


( A Brando story)

Monday, June 19, 2017

H & H - Part 8 - My replacement?





 
Back to the TV series again where a terrific rainbow appears outside the writer's office.

As the TV machine begins to unfold, more crew arrive into Jackson and the actors should follow. We have a cast of relatively unknowns except for the lead ranger, who had a successful series a few years before. Our big star actually is a big star, or at least had her day. Let's call her Britt Winters and she starred with the likes of Peter Sellars, Paul Newman and many other big stars. 

She was also one of my sexy idols growing up as a teen and this is not lost on me, for I will actually get to meet and know her. It's a big deal for me. 

But for now I sit in the Greek-owned Tokyo Tom's sushi restaurant. I'm waiting for Jonathan and he shows up a half hour late. I joke that it must have been the traffic, seeing as that his condo is less than a five minute walk. Jonathan looks the same, gaunt and tired, and smells of beer. 

Being around the same age, our conversation rolls around to the 60's and 70's, I worked for Bobby Kennedy, he worked with draft dodgers to Canada. Our mutual history makes it a good dinner and we laugh a lot. Yet, with that initial betrayal I am still not quite relaxed. 

Later I walk home and notice a ring around it, Hunter's Moon as I've heard it referred to. And it suggests cold weather. And a new writer coming on board. 

The new writer arrives the next day. He's Rino, the one Jonathan and Kaplan arranged for. The one who just might also be the replacement for me. Rino is short, overweight, taken to hanging black jackets and black everything else. He also smokes like a proverbial chimney. 

But after a few minutes with him, I realize he's one of those "who get it",  he's calm, smart and knows what is going on. He's a little cautious about saying too much but I understand that. 

Jonathan and Kaplan join us for dinner, Kaplan says we won't be getting a secretary and there's no word on the printer. This printer thing is becoming an albatross, how can we hand out scripts with no printer? 

We notice the director of the upcoming first episode nearby eating alone so Kaplan invites him over. I've worked with him in the past, his name was Stacy and he was your average director with little imagination but friends in the business. Stacy proceeds to tell us what's wrong with our scripts, with the show and generally with life. And he drinks too much. 

I've mentioned this before, the old saying that directors don't like writers because writers are the only ones who know they're faking it. Not all directors, just the untalented and insecure ones. Which probably is 80%. In 30 years I have worked with only 4 really good directors. 

Stacy then goes on a jag about some low-brow action/sexy series that's been syndicated to Saturday 5pm slots, otherwise known as the graveyard. Rino and I exchange glance and a smile that suggests this guy could be trouble in the days to come. 

TV directors differ to some extent from feature film directors. Feature film directors are usually better with character-driven stories and with mood and tone. And they get more money, much more money. 

A feature film can shoot for 6 months, our single TV episode takes 6 days. Most TV directors start out as assistant directors, as time and schedule are tighter when you have to shoot a one hour episode in 6 days. 

And TV directors don't get all that much say in how the episode looks. It has to look like the other 11 episodes. And because of that, they have little power as compared to the god-like stature of feature directors.
 
TV directors can go up to features, people like Robert Altman and the best known, Steven Spielberg who started out in episodic TV. But feature directors only go down to TV, indicating their career in features is pretty much over. 

Power in series is tied into the writers and producers, many of whom are writers themselves. Since they are there for the full 12 episodes, they control everything. I have the least control of our group, as I'm outranked by Kaplan and Jonathan and Rino is an unknown. 

I will learn about him in the coming weeks.

And I do have the network behind me. Even if they're across the country in Toronto.


(Fri: Let's begin with a good argument)

Friday, June 16, 2017

Heaven & Hell - Part 7 - Preproduction




The big day arrives. 

We began pre-production. We're using the big room, as now every department from props to camera to make-up is here. It's where everyone gets to throw their in their two cents worth and to remind every other department how indispensable they are. It's here where they tell the others they can't possibly do what is required..
.
... But because they're so brilliant, they will find a way.
 
It's a meeting I prefer to avoid.

As my cameraman friend said;  "It really takes 3 people to make a film, a writer, a cameraman and an actor."

And he is right to an extent. But right now we've got about 30 people in the room and each one gets a chance to say their piece. Things are accomplished thru power and intimidation. And Mahon's favorite expression here is "it'll be what it'll be". In other words,  don't start getting big ideas.

And Writers are known for creating the most problems, after all they write the scripts with imagination and creativity and thus don't really know how hard it is to actually re-create some things on the set.  And to some extent they are right. Especially if the writers are amateurs like Kaplan.

But most of the writers I know are perfectly capable of writing something that can be done, so I'm not too worried.

And again, the crew doesn't really like the writers, nobody sees us work, we float in and out, maybe step onto the set now and then, and have to be consulted about many things like "what did you have in mind for a late model sportscar?"

Writers don't really have many friends on a shoot, although we tend to hang our more with "above the line" people rather than below the line. There's a joke from a Woody Allan movie wherein an office exec asks if it's legal for someone above the line to marry someone below the line.

What it is is this; above the line refers to the creative people, writers, actors, directors and the producer. Everyone else is below the line. There is an unwritten law that these different classes do not mix all that well. After all I can talk about writing while a gaffer talks about his HMI lighting kit. Not all that much in common.

I have a bit more empathy to the crew as I have worked at almost every job on a film set and can do many of them so I tend to make friends amongst the crew and certainly on this show, stay away from the above the lines, because so far all they've done is betray my trust.
Mahon excels at these meetings, there is noticeable conflict between her and Kaplan and somehow I sense Kaplan has the upper hand despite his lack of talent and inexperience. I wonder if this is because he's male and she's not. It occurs more often than not on movie and TV productions.

I know the DP, the Director of Photography, Jorn Olsen, we worked together on a previous series and he's a good cameraman and a good friend. He confirms my feelings that this show will not be as much fun as the one we worked on.

As they all go over the first script, big things get smaller. The star's grand lodge is now a modest dining room, our Ranger cabin is not as elaborate as we had written because "we couldn't get that big cabin". And it continues getting smaller. But this is normal on all shows although there's less of the good stuff here mostly because of the lack of work on the producer's part.

I also meet Ben Cooper, a production designer who has mutual friends. A big, bearded man, Ben sits quietly through-out the meeting although he doesn't miss a beat. Later we talk about our mutual friends and he confirms my feelings once again,  he seems to take to Kaplan andMahon like a root canal.

I now have Beth, the accountant, Jorn, the cameraman and Ben the production designer on my side. It makes me feel a little more confident.

I'm asked if I can change a few things and they're mostly cosmetic although I don't give in easily just to establish my position.

By the end of the meeting, all departments have established their power in the room, although there is a definite arrangement. The below-the-line food chain goes like this;
The production manager is the sergeant major of the production. Their job is to keep the show moving, to make sure everything is where it's supposed to be from actors to caterers. They plan the shooting schedule and push the director when needed to hurry up.

The Camera department is next; after all they create the look of the show visually. A good example is the X Files show, it's style was dark and wet (due to being shot in Vancover) but it suited the stories which were dark and twisted and eerie. My friend John Bartley was the DP for the first 4 years and did a remarkable job that is still copied to this day.

I put the Production Design department after the Camera department, which some would dispute. I go back to my friend's idea that 3 people can make a movie. And you need a camera more than you need someone to build the inside of a house. But production design is important if you have the money. 

I shot Ghostkeeper in an old hotel and we didn't add one single item to the set, it was all there. We didn't even hire a production designer.

Sound comes next, usually a Soundperson and a boom person. The boom person holds an extendable pole with a microphone at the end for some scenes. Other scenes use wireless mikes. Sound is as important as picture to me and they can be as creative as the DP and the writer and director.

Next come the various technical departments, the gaffers, essentially electricians, the grips, who operate cranes and dollies, the makeup and hair, script supervisor, transportation, location managers, caterers and others I can't think of right now. And either they or their head people are at this meeting. And they all have at least one complaint.

Finally the meeting is over and I head out for a beer at the Peak, a bar within a hotel which has slowly become our hangout place. I sit to a husky bearded man who is slightly drunk and who tells me he has a 3/4 wolf dog. This is like having a Porsche in LA, something to be proud of. But the Rangers have told me these half wolf/half dog mutations often have to be shot by rangers after they suddenly "go wild" and rip a kid's hand off.

Rangers would prefer people not breed these types of dogs but right now, this guy thinks it's great. Then he changes to talk of grizzlies including a stuffed one in this hotel, which was killed by a train while sitting on the track.

And if that wasn't enough, he also tells me of a woman ranger who got killed by a "griz" because she was having her period and the bear smelled the blood. I've heard this before but wasn't sure if that was just an urban myth.

But just in case, I'll be careful who I walk out in the woods with.

Later in my little suite, I call a friend in L.A. who tells me two cops were shot execution style nine times when they pulled over a car. He followed up with a bomb going off in a San Bernardino police station and a cop coming out of another station was shot by a 10-year old kid.



 
 Here in Jackson, it's snowing and the town is quiet.
  

Monday, June 12, 2017

Heaven & Hell 6 - Lay of the Land



Who's the most important person on a production, be it TV or features?

Easy. The accountant.

Why? Because they are ultimately the ones who pay you with something that's real. A check. Sure, the producer signs the check but the accountant is the one who makes them sign it.  Having the accountant on your side gets you that little piece of paper that translates into real cash.

And they can be nice about it, or they can be not nice about it. They can put it at the bottom of their "to-do" list, or at the top.

I am an accountant whore.

Accountants, aka bean counters, generally are not hip, cool dudes. They are numbers people, not creative types unless you count the ones in the stock market downfall, but that's another movie. They think of us creative types as bitchy, whining, demanding and general pains in the ass.

So the first thing I do is make friends. I have been known to bring flowers and chocolates if the head accountant is a woman, or a bottle of single malt whiskey if it's a man. Or sometimes both.

I am lucky this time. With three people already against me on the show I meet Beth who it turns out is friendly and street-savvy. And she thinks Kaplan is an idiot. I like her better with every hour.

Another reason to befriend the accountant is to gain access to the copy machine. That is worth it's weight in gold. Not to mention internet access.

We get along great and she even tells me she is concerned over the financial areas, there's too many things not worked out and a general lack of experience shooting on locations.

The show is already over budget. 

Filming on location is very expensive normally but this time it's going beyond that. We will have a full film crew and actors and new actors coming in each week to a small town in the mountains 6 hours away from the closest major airport. In good weather. And we still have a good month of winter.

What will cost the production is what we don't have. There is no studio here, not even an empty warehouse that we can make work. There are no film services that include film labs, equipment houses for cameras and lighting gear and hundreds of other things. 

The Executive Producer who wasn't from Vancouver made a deal for motel rooms at $35 a day, thinking that meals were included. They weren't. Whatever respect I  had for the producers seems to be dwindling by the minute.

Normally this kind of show would film in a studio lot in a bigger city and a second-unit crew would come out and film sequences that requires the actors being out among the mountains. Or at least an airport that could bring in what we need.

But not here. Cameras break down, we are screwed. We're shooting film and that has to be taken to a lab in Vancouver by car to the closest major airport, which again, is 6 hours away. Then more hours lost as the film waits to catch a plane to Vancouver.

And then there are the scripts.

We need 12 scripts.  So far we have 4 scripts, each around 50 pages or so, for a 1-hour episode. And they still need some work. But we don't have the remaining 8 scripts. I have 2  to write, Jonathan has 2 and we will hand 4 more to free-lance writers. Kaplan might get another but both Jonathan and I dread that.

The dream is to have all your scripts ready at the get-g0. This way you have lots of time to rewrite and clean them up. We begin shooting next week with only 4, meaning we will have to work as fast as we can to get the other 8.

And remember each script has to go to the network and production company offices over a thousand miles away. And it takes time for the executives and their flunkies and stooges as Jethro said in the classic Beverly Hillbillies series. And this can take days. And they can tell us to rewrite it again because it may feel "light" or "with no arc" or "soft".

Then there's the conference calls once a week wherein the network tells us what is working and not working -- for them.

Okay, it's not brain surgery. And it's not finding a cure for cancer.

But we're gonna earn our money, regardless.

I talk to Beth and she says most of the crew already here usually ends up at the bar near my motel and she'll see me there. I'm glad we get along, for the obvious reasons of getting my money, but more importantly because she's someone I trust. And like.

Downtown Jackson is brisk with locals going about their business. There's a new breed here besides the railroad workers and the tourists. It's dozens of LL Bean dressed men and women who have for reasons of their own, left the cities they lived in behind and chosen God's Country.

They have bought souvenir stores, coffee houses, upscale clothing stores and restaurants. And they add a cosmopolitan air to the staid town. Not Aspen by a long stretch, but certainly a junior relative.

I stop at the local post office to see if any forwarded mail has come through and meet a friendly French girl who's cheerful demeanor is catching. She, like the entire town, knows about the filming to happen and is totally excited.  Outside I  meet a woman Ranger who also is friendly and offers advice on where the best hikes are, the best coffee, the best cafes and much more.

All of this beings a sense of community to me, they like us (so far) and want us to be here as it provides the local economy with more business during the winter slow period.

So for the moment, I'm in a good mood, enjoying the easiness of the life style here, surrounded by 12,000 foot peaks that are spectacular.


And of course, there's always the Chinese fortune cookie I got yesterday...  Look to your righ -- "could"??


(Friday 7 - They Wait)

Friday, June 9, 2017

Heaven & Hell Part 4



The drive to Jackson, (not the real name) high in the Rockies is therapeutic, away from Jonathan and Kaplan and having to deal with their agendas, each of which are basically to make sure they come out on top.

I had doubts about joining them, but realized that the money is just too good to pass up and at least I will go in with some support from the network. At least for the time being. And from now on I'm the payroll and will receive a weekly of $2000 (remember this was several years ago) and per diems of $350 to spend as I wish, and of course hotel/motel accomodation.  And the two scripts I have been assigned to write will pay around $20,000 each. All of this for 6 months.

Sounds like a lot of money, but considering that I might not get another job for a year or even two... it isn't all that much.

Jackson is set in a valley with towering peaks all around, it's both a tourist town and a working town as the railway comes through the valley to a shunting yard, creating work for locals after the tourists are gone. There is skiing but it's too far off the beaten path to really matter.

I find the motel where our production offices are the entire wing of the place. Beds have been removed and replaced by desks and chairs and conference tables. I find the production office and meet some of the crew.

A series our size utilizes a lot of people, over all maybe as much as a hundred.  Most of the crew are the same as me, from Vancouver or other areas and locals fill in the jobs that require basic typing and business skills.

Writers are usually looked upon as suspicious. We don't really have to deal with anyone else except a director or producer or network head so we have little to do with the rest of the crew. Our work happens in closed rooms, by ourselves, writing sometimes is not a team sport and so they are curious about us.

I make it a point to be friendly and easygoing as I will need favors from them in the next few months and it's best to make friends. 

Then I meet Liz.

Liz Mahon is the other producer besides Kaplan. She's not a pleasant person and bitches immediately, complaining about the lack of snow, the hotel and the lack of preparation. Since preparation is the producer's job I wonder why she doesn't realize that. When I ask for a printer in the writer's office, she says "goddam it, great, you don't have a printer"?

I tell her the production needs to get one, because, of all the crew, we need a printer the most. And a secretary to help us, which was also promised besides a printer. She sizes me up;  "are you going to be trouble"?

I just smile and say "I hope so".

But I'm realizing that my conflicts with Jonathan and Kaplan are only scratching the surface of this job, that there will be many more of these people to be wary of. I know I must make my alliances right off the top, much like Survivor to make sure I don't get screwed.

Is working on a series as bad as that?

I apply the old rule; it all begins at the top. When I worked with Kim from Vancouver on a series, he was the creator and producer and it reflected his intelligence and caring as well as a remarkable talent for writing. His show was not only easy, it was fun.

This show has already begun with 3 potential enemies, and all three at the top end of the balancing sheet. Remember they said they were disappointed in my work. And then the network head praised my work. For that I will suffer.

And remember, Jonathan was apparently dragged off in a strait jacket on one of his previous series.


My motel room is spacious, as you can see in the picture above, it has 2 rooms, one with a kitchen suite but I would rarely eat there. I unload my six month supply of clothes, winter, spring and summer, and set up my computer even though I will be working out of the office.


Jonathan I learn will work out of his suite across the street, he has a ski-condo type accommodation, fireplace, a loft for a bedroom. Well, he is the head writer. But any room is fine with me anyways as I will rarely be there for any period of time.

I do a walk downtown, about five blocks, even though business in the town in January is slow, you can tell that summer is their big tourist season. They have Greek restaurants, Chinese, Italian, steak houses, one French restaurant and two sushi joints.

And several hotel bars.

Where more than once I will almost get into trouble through no action of my own, rather with the leading actress. But that's for another blog.

Without tourists, most of the men in the bars are tough and hardy, lots of workboots and plaid shirts and very opinionated. A tall heavy man sitting at the bar next to me tells his friends, "there are eleven types of women, lesbians, transvestites, feminists, liberated, hookers..." and turns to look at my reaction, hoping for a challenge.

My food arrives and I'm spared the confrontation. And since I'm neither of the categories in his list, which he never completes, I feel safe.Later I would learn there is a disproportionately high female gay population here, and was told they have less hassles than in bigger cities and towns.

And since this semi-working town also caters to tourists, there is a greater toleration. At least that was what I was told. Gay men never really entered any conversations, oddly enough.

Walking back to my motel I notice the silence. There is virtually no sound. No cars, no stereos, no trains. Just silence. Then to add to the picture, I see two deer munching on brownish grass by a house, paying very little attention to me as they continue foraging. Nobody in town seems to even notice them anymore. In the weeks to come I will see deer, moose, a black bear, elk, lots of elk, and marmots.

And right now it's heaven.

I finish the night by watching the news on a Detroit channel on cable. It's ironic as I started my career in TV at a station across the river from Detroit and am now over two thousand miles away, and watching the same reporters I used to work with.

But my sleep isn't easy, I dreamt of the show, of my writing, whether it will make up for the bad start, whether I'll last. It becomes that running uphill kind of dream, where you try and try but can't seem to make any progress - or escape.

No matter what else I think; this will be a battle.

(Mon: The work begins)  


Monday, June 5, 2017

Heaven & Hell Part 3






This is the third of a continuing blog detailing the adventures of working on a TV series which I entitle "Living in Heaven, Working in Hell" referring to being able to live in an incredible setting, the heart of the Rocky Mountains, and having to work with difficult partners, bosses, producers and others.

But back to Vancouver.

After Jonathan and Kaplan said they were firing me from the job, their sudden turn-around wanting me to stay was a shock. To this day I don't know why they kept me. I only knew that they would have to pay me a bundle to go and this way may have been cheaper. Or maybe the network guy Litman liked my writing. In fact  he had said it was the best script of all 3 we were working on.

Over the week-end I did a marathon rewrite of the Avalanche story, creating more depth in the characters. I have found that rewrites on screenplays usually revolve around 2 things: character and clarification.

Clarification is simple; it's where a reader doesn't quite understand the action taking place, it might be confusing or maybe incorrect. Those rewrites are easy.

Character is different. Nobody can really define character, the description is: A collection of features and traits that form the individual nature of a person; moral quality. Easy enough to define, but how do you write it.

I write it by giving the role some defining characteristics, they might be shy or brave or both. They might like babies or cats. They like sugar in their coffee or they are angered at the sight of injustice. Those are characteristics. In other words, give them characteristics that relate to the reader and then the viewer. Make them empathetic, like you or me.

Character is what creates conflict and that in turn creates story. The Terminator's character is that of focused killer while Sarah Conner's character is of strength, bravery and fear.

Monday morning I send the script to the network. Litman loves it and even the distribution head of the network, Al Roadman thinks it's one of the best scripts he's ever read.

I never really handle compliments well as I know the down side, they expect more of you than the others. So I just smile and say I'm glad they like it. And knowing that I've set the bar for Kaplan and Jonathan doesn't sit well, regardless if I think it was a good script or not. I will pay for forcing them into a corner.

And it doesn't change the way I feel about Jonathan and Kaplan. They are not to be trusted. Not even with who pays for lunch.

This mild paranoia would increase but eventually turn into anger and disappointment.

Two days later I'm told we head for the location where we will live and work for 6 months. I'm getting tired of raining Vancouver and look forward to life in a small town. The last night I meet my ex, Carole, for a few drinks and we catch up on each other's lives. She is married and doing well and I'm glad we are still friends.

As I walk her to the car, she tells me that the Australian Shepherd dog we had bought years ago is in the car. The dog, Sookie, is older now and in severe pain, something that her breed seems to have. But her excitement at seeing me after about 3 years is so sincere, the little dog serves as a truth in the world of lies and betrayal I am putting myself in. It would be the last time I saw her.

I watch them drive off into the rain and thing how precious life is, even in the form of a speckled blue-eyed dog who displayed that fantastic trait of unconditional love that animals have. And for the moment Jonathan and Kaplan are not that important.

24 hours later I am driving my Explorer, the one in the photo above, which I drove from California, into the Rocky Mountains and my new 6 month job. Ahead of me, work, friends, enemies, women, a crazy man, rangers, grizzly bears and a silly TV show that in the end, didn't matter that much at all.


(Friday:  Settling into a new world)



Friday, June 2, 2017

Heaven & Hell Part 2



After meeting Jonathan, 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.

Jonathan 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.

The writer's script was that I was to rewrite 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. Jonathan always wrote in his motel room,  Kaplan was somewhere else and I was in our "writer's room", which had a big table in the middle. 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...". Litman seemed to like me rather than Kaplan or Jonathan. One good thing was that he liked me. And the other two didn't like that.

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. Jonathan 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. (Jonathan) 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? 

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".


( Monday - The Rocky Mountains)