Man of Action III

Greetings from Cologne,  Germany, where I am holed up in my hotel room this morning, writing a pilot. I’m suffering from the worst jet-lag I’ve ever had…I think it has something to do with the fact it stays dark here until 8:30 in the morning and gets dark again around 5 pm…and in between, there’s not much sunlight. My internal clock just doesn’t seem to be adjusting, even after being here nearly 10 days. 

I haven’t been writing as much as I would like while I’ve been here. I’ve been having pre-production meetings at the studio in Cologne and with the network in Munich…and when I get back to my hotel room in the evenings, I’m crippled with fatigue and fighting to stay awake past 8 pm. I’m hoping when I get home I’ll rebound quickly from the jet-lag and have a nice, uninterrupted stretch to write so I can work up some momentum (the script is due Jan. 1). That’s also why you haven’t seen me posting here…I’m using the energy I have on the script. I like what I’ve written, it’s just harder to come by.

I still  have  Christmas shopping to do…I hope to  do a little  of it here before I return on Saturday.


Cobrabox is reporting that the syndicated series COBRA, which lasted only a season, is coming to DVD  in February, but only up  in Canada, which was where the show was shot. Bill Rabkin & I wrote nine or ten episodes of COBRA,  so I’ll be buying one of the boxed sets through Amazon.

Man of Action II

This article about Action Concept and some of the work I am doing with them appeared in the Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday:

Character counts on German TV
Joha’s ‘car crash company’ shifting focus to U.S.-style drama fare

By Scott Roxborough

COLOGNE, Germany — Veteran German producer-director Hermann Joha began his career as a stuntman and built up his company — Action Concept — with high-octane action series that were long on car crashes and short on plot.

But now Joha is trying to pull off a stunt that is the corporate equivalent of a 180-degree turn at top speed on the Autobahn.

With such U.S. series as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "House" and "Monk" outracing local productions in primetime, Joha has sent his company back to the shop for retuning. He has brought in Los Angeles-based media consulting group Media-Xchange to conduct its famed Writers’ Room workshops to teach German scribes how to deliver U.S.-style character depth and complexity on a deadline.

"When we started, it was enough to just have great stunts, that pulled in an audience," Joha said in an interview. "But that’s not the case anymore. Now you can have the most amazing special effects, and the viewers don’t care. What they want is a great story and great characters."

MediaXchange has hosted two Writers’ Room sessions for Action Concept this year, and four more are planned for 2007.

The investment already is paying off. Joha is in advanced negotiations with Sony Pictures Television International to produce a new action series developed during the first German Writers’ Room session. The concept — a Dirty Harry-style U.S. cop heads to Berlin and raises hell — came from Writers’ Room coach Lee Goldberg, a regular scribe for such shows as "Monk" and "Missing." The series has been given the working title of "Hurricane in Berlin."

"Hurricane" will be Action Concept’s first English-language series, the first produced using a U.S.-style writers’ room and the first specifically designed for an international audiences.

Goldberg, who has signed a one-year, first-look development deal with Action Concept, will act as executive producer and showrunner on the series.

"This is really a radical move for Action Concept," Goldberg said in an interview. "You have to realize, this used to be the ‘car crash company.’ What Hermann is doing is trying to position them as the ‘writers’ company,’ producing series of a quality that can compete with U.S. shows in Germany and internationally."

Joha is even applying the company’s new approach to his most prized possession: the long-running Autobahn cop series "Alarm for Cobra 11." The show, which kick-started Action Concept in 1996, will stage a major relaunch in March; Joha is retooling the series to give the cop-and-cars show more depth and backstory.

The new "Cobra 11" also will feature a fresh face: German star Gedeon Burkhard, known to international audiences from the cop-and-dog series "Kommissar Rex," one of Germany’s most successful TV exports.

"The new show will have more multiepisode story arcs, something we never used to do. All our shows were self-contained, one-episode stories," Joha said. "The main character is much more complex.

"We knew we had to revive the show if we wanted to keep it fresh after 10 years on the air," he said. "We were planning a relaunch anyway, but we sent our regular ‘Cobra 11′ writers to the Writers’ Room to teach them a few new things. And it’s worked. We’ve just finished the pilot, and I have to say, it is the best thing we’ve ever done."

Let Me Entertain You

I came across this article I wrote…I just don’t remember who I wrote it for or when. This is what happens to your memory when you a) write a lot of articles for a lot of people and b) creep past 40 years old.  But I think the subject is still relevant and, since I am on a flight to  Germany right now, I thought it would make an interesting blog post in my absense…

My guess is that I’m not the guy you’d pick to
tell you how to live your life. I’m hardly an expert on mental health,
sexuality, religion, education, alcoholism heart disease, drug addiction,
smoking, race relations, feminism, or child-rearing, among other things, but
people think you’ll listen to me. I also know very little about archeology,
quantum physics, auto repair and basic mathematics, but thankfully those aren’t
areas I’m called on to teach you about.

So who am I? A leading educator? An elder
statesman? A respected theologian? Oprah? Nothing so lofty or accredited. I’m a TV writer, and the executive
producer of a network action show. But apparently that makes me the point
person in the organized effort to make you healthier, happier and a more
productive member of society. It’s a big job. But is it really mine?

A few months
ago, a story broke that producers like me are supposedly being pressured by the
government to put “anti-drug” messages in their entertainment programming. It
was big news, but I don’t understand why. Every day, I’m bombarded with mail
from a seemingly endless parade of councils, associations and societies, as
well as action groups, government groups, working groups, and, my personal
favorite, “industry advisory groups.” They all want me to teach you an
important life lesson under the guise of entertainment. To that end, they inundate me with earnest
press releases, shocking statistics, colorful pamphlets, slick videos, and the
phone numbers of “technical advisors”
who stand ready and waiting to sharpen my prose with a few important life

Beyond the avalanche of paper, it’s not a hard
sell, There are a lot of incentives to turn that press release into a line of
punchy dialogue or to give a quick call to that helpful technical advisor. For
one thing, it’s always for a good cause. No one can argue that snorting coke,
wife-beating, overeating, sexual harassment, and drunk driving are bad,
socially unacceptable things. So what’s the harm in sneaking a line or two
about the evils of those behaviors and attitudes into your next plot? It’s like
adding fluoride to drinking water.

Then there’s the implication that your boss is
watching. Most of these groups list an advisory council or board of directors
that invariably includes several network executives and studio chieftans. If
it’s their cause, shouldn’t it also be yours? You are, after all, working for
them, and would it kill you to sneak into a scene that unprotected sex is
dangerous? That cutting down old growth redwoods hurt the environment? That
your villain has had one drink too many?

And if that wasn’t enough motivation, there are
all the awards and accolades you can win. Just about all of the groups have an
annual, black-tie awards ceremony, usually put on by a committee of network and
studio heavyweights, where you can be lauded for your heartfelt propaganda, I
mean, teaching viewers a valuable lesson. Recently I was invited to the Prism
Awards, for the Outstanding Contribution to the Accurate Depiction of Drug,
Alcohol, and Tobacco Use and Addiction. Who wouldn’t want a Prism Award, and
others like it, on his mantle piece? They are great tokens of your political
correctness and media influence. And they make nice place-holders for the
Oscar, Emmy or Tony you know you’re gonna get some day.

But I think there’s a real danger to acceding to
all those well-intentioned, kind-hearted requests for just one little line of
dialogue in your script. No matter how artfully it’s done, you end up with
propaganda as entertainment. You end up with writers who are no longer telling
stories, but giving lectures punctuated with punchy dialogue and the occasional
car chase (albeit with everybody sober, properly belted in and definitely not
smoking, eating, talking on the cell phone or listening to their music too loud
while operating the motor vehicle in what is clearly an unsafe manner to begin

I don’t think people turn on “Battlestar Galactica,” “Monk,” “Law and
Order” and “Grey’s Anatomy” looking for guidance in their personal lives. They want
to be entertained, challenged, captivated, and thrilled. But we can’t do that
if we’re busy checking off items on a lesson plan instead of using our
imaginations to tell exciting stories. And do you really want a bunch of
Hollywood TV writers telling you how to think and behave?

There are those
who argue that we’re doing that anyway, whether we mean to or not. Granted,
television creates heroes and icons, trends and styles, not to mention the
occasional memorable catch-phrase. And certainly some people set out to do just
that every time they set pen to paper. But most of the time, it’s the
accidental, happy by-product of entertainment. We are no more responsible for
how you live than the authors of the books your read, the music you listen to,
or what you browse on the Internet. Who you are, your attitudes and behaviors,
are shaped by much more than an episode of  “Lost.”

So, to put it bluntly, why come to me? Why
not aren’t these same groups asking Scott Turow and John Grisham to stick a few
Public Service Announcements in their characters’ mouths? Why aren’t they
offering Justin Timberlake, Snoop Dogg and Gwen Stefani some technical
advisors who can help them add helpful dietary hints in their lyrics? The idea
is really no more intrusive or preposterous than coming to me.

It’s hard enough thinking up good stories without
the added pressure of having to dictate morals and values at the same time.
Yes, we reach millions of people every week with our programming. We have a
responsibility to be, well, responsible. But our first, and foremost,
responsibility should be to entertain.

That said, don’t forget to eat some fruit today.
It’s good for you. And tell your friends I told you so.

Ironside with a Laugh Track

Ken Levine is out of town, so he’s handed over his wonderful blog to Emmy-winning writer/producer Peter Casey, who talks today about the creation of his hit sitcom FRASIER.

We frankly feared that anything we created for Frasier would pale in
comparison to CHEERS. Kelsey wasn’t particularly interested in
continuing the character of Frasier either, so we came up with a new
concept. Kelsey would play this very high-brow, eccentric
multi-millionaire publisher (think Malcom Forbes) in New York who was
paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident. He would run
his publishing empire from his bed in his fabulous Manhattan penthouse.
His live-in nurse would be a very street smart, dedicated Hispanic
woman (we pictured Rosie Perez) who would be a thorn in his side, but
bring out the humanity in him.
Kelsey liked it, Paramount hated it.

This anecdote reminds me of something a producer once told me (was it Steve Cannell? Michael Gleason? Fred Silverman? Roy Huggins? I can’t remember). He said that veteran drama series stars love coming up with series concepts for themselves where all they have to do is sit somewhere and everybody comes to them. It began, he said, with Raymond Burr and "Ironside." The producer said that after "Ironside," every drama star wanted his gig. I believe the producer said that it was one of the things that killed "Bret Maverick" — after "Rockford Files," James Garner didn’t want to have to run around any more. He wanted the stories to come to him, preferrably while he was sitting on a soundstage at a poker table. Which is why Maverick settled down in a small town on the Warner Brothers backlot instead of roaming the west…

An Argument for Outlining

I am a firm believer in the importance of having an outline before you sit down to write. It doesn’t have to be detailed outline– it might only be a page or two.  You just need to know where you’re going and, to some degree, how you are going to get there…or what happened to author Sandra Scoppettone could happen to you:

In the course of writing today (yes, I did) I inadvertently
discovered that I have two different men involved with the same two
women who are trying to get the money everyone is after.  It has to be
one man or the other.  Pages and pages must be rewritten.  Whole
chapters.  Nightmare.

Did this happen because I took off so much
time?  Or am I losing it?  I understand forgetting the color of a
character’s eyes, but this is crazy.  And with one man I’m not sure I
even did the set-up with the women.  I think these three just happen.
The reason I don’t know this is because I couldn’t go on with this

Tomorrow I’m going to have to trace backwards and find out.  And then I’ll have to write new scenes, rewrite others completely.

"How Did This Happen?" is the headline of Sandra’s post. No offense to Sandra, but I can answer that question in two words: No outline.

That doesn’t mean that if you have an outline that the writing of your book is going to go smoothly. You could still find yourself having to go back and rewrite everything…but not because you’ve inadvertently duplicated a character. Outlines give you a path and a direction for your story, although that doesn’t mean you have follow it.

But at least the path is there.

I think of my outlines as "living outlines," since I’m constantly revising them as I write my books.  Why? Because I am always deviating from my outlines and going in new directions, so I have to replot my story to take into account these new events and discoveries.  I usually end up finishing the outline about a week or two before I finish my books.

I’ve read so many books that were clearly made up as the author went along…and I find them a lot less satisfying that a tightly plotted, tightly-written, confident narrative.

Uh-oh Guyot

Paul Guyot is blogging again. And for this is what he believes:

I believe in God.
I believe Roy Buchanan was the greatest guitarist who ever lived.
I believe Emmitt Smith is the most overrated player in NFL history.
believe an author who writes a great cozy about a crime-solving cat is
every bit as good a writer as an author who writes a great hard-boiled
story filled with graphic sex, violence and language.
I believe Sheldon Turner is going to be the next Brian Helgeland.
I believe Floyd Landis is innocent and the American media has turned its back on him.
I believe most parents refuse to admit they don’t spend enough time with their kids.
I believe Jay-Tee is truly oblivious to how good a writer she is.
I believe Formula 1 drivers are overrated and NASCAR drivers are
underrated, but that F1 drivers are better drivers than the NASCAR
I believe it’s fine to drink red wine with fish.
I believe the best writing being done right now in Hollywood is for television, and not the movies.
I believe people who blog about themselves and what they believe are generally boring and really have nothing to say.

Man of Action

I am off to Germany again on Wednesday to work with my good friends at Action Concept and won’t be returning until Dec. 16.  So don’t be surprised if my postings here are sporadic. I am in the midst of writing a two-hour movie/pilot that will be shot in English in Berlin. If all goes well, it could go into production as early as this February. So I am off to do some pre-production work and meet with the German network that’s involved.  I’ll tell you more about the movie…and some of the other projects I’ve been working on… if and when they get closer to your TV, movie theater and computer screens (I am also involved in a very exciting, major web project that blends gaming and scripted drama in a new way).

You may have noticed I don’t talk much here about my TV and feature work.  Frankly, I don’t like to talk about specific projects that I am writing until they are in production…and there’s actually going to be  something for you to see. Speaking of which, Bill Rabkin and I wrote an episode of the USA Network series PSYCH that will be airing some time in January…

Scammer Sent to Slammer

Writers’ Beware is reporting that Martha Ivery, the vanity press scammer and fake literary agent, was sentenced today to nearly six years in Federal prison for bilking aspiring writers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars with her many swindles under various aliases (Kelly O’Donnell Literary Agency, Craig Roussan, PressTige Publishing, New Millenium Publishing House, etc.).

Martha’s lawyer had argued for probation rather than jail time,
pleading serious mental illness, but the prosecution’s psychiatrist,
while acknowledging that Martha is one majorly fucked-up lady, did not
agree that this prevented her from distinguishing right from wrong. The
judge, fortunately, saw it the prosecution’s way.

Martha is
required to pay restitution to her victims (or, if they die, their
heirs), starting immediately, at the rate of 10% of everything she
earns or $100 per month, whichever is greater. Since the total
restitution amount is $728,248.10 (representing her "take" from nearly
300 victims), this is really more symbolic than anything else.

You can find a copy of her indictment here. Let’s hope this serves as a warning to all the other vanity press scammers out there (not that they are that hard to spot if you have an iota of common sense).

(Thanks to William Simon for the heads-up!)