My good friend Ernie Wallengren co-created the NEW ADVENTURES OF FLIPPER for Samuel Goldwyn Jr.. Ernie was brought in, if memory serves, to rewrite a previous script/format by another writer that didn't win over Goldwyn. So Ernie wrote the pilot, shot it in Florida, and wanted Bill Rabkin & I to come in as producers for the series. We'd just come off of THE COSBY MYSTERIES and were looking for a job…but we really didn't want to do the show. But we owed Ernie big time, so we went in with him to meet Goldwyn and talk about the show. Goldwyn told us that he wanted the show to be "like a Charles Willeford novel, but with a dolphin." Ernie had no idea who Willeford was, but Bill & I did, so we played along, fighting laughter all the way. After the meeting, Goldwyn told Ernie we were perfect for the show…but by the time they were ready to make a deal with us, we got a gig on SEAQUEST and bowed out. Ernie didn't mind us going to another show, he knew it was better for our careers and our bank accounts, but he insisted we find him someone else to take our place…so we recommended our friend Terry Winter, who we'd worked with on COSBY and who was desperate for a gig. Ernie signed him up right away.
Flash forward six or eight months. SEAQUEST had been cancelled and I was having a friendly lunch with Ernie, who was miserable. He was complaining about how hard it was to come up with stories for his show. I told him to stop whining, it was easy — I could come up with three stories for FLIPPER before dessert. So he said "Go ahead, smartass." So, just to be funny, I pitched "Cape Flipper," a dolphin take on Cape Fear. A killer that Flipper put away comes back to settle the score. Ernie's face lit up. "You've got an assignment. I need it in four days." I laughed, because I was joking. Ernie laughed, because he wasn't. I tried to talk him out of it, but he was quick to remind me how much we owed him. (He'd hired us on staff on two series early in our careers).
I don't remember why Bill wasn't at the lunch, or what his reaction was when I told him we had an assignment to write "Cape Fear with a dolphin," but I do know he took the writing of the script in stride. I struggled with it. It was fun for Bill and hell for me. The only pleasure I got out of the show was that the bad guy is reading my book MY GUN HAS BULLETS in one of the scenes.
We ended up writing a second episode of FLIPPER that was even worse (it was called "That's A Moray," which should tell you how awful it was), but I don't remember how that one came about. All I remember is that Lois Chiles, the female lead from the 007 movie MOONRAKER, was the guest star.
The only thing FLIPPER is memorable for is, of course, Jessica Alba. Ernie discovered her when she was twelve or thirteen and I have to give him credit — even then, he knew that she was going to be a big star. He must have said it a hundred times. It was hard for me to see her potential from a FLIPPER episode, but he saw her future very clearly.
The same woman who asked me yesterday if I knew any agents who specialized in "jewish psychic detectives" approached me again today as I was signing books after my screenwriting panel with April Smith, George Mastras, Donald Bain, and Derek Haas.
"Do you know of any agents or producers who are looking for screenplays about a university called Griffin University — but I have to change the name to a different university because there is a Griffin University — that lures in the most creative students only to kill them because they are on a secret mission to eradicate creativity in the year 2310?"
"Yes, I do," I said. "Unfortunately, the agents and producers who specialize in scripts about universities with secret plans to eradicate creativity already have so many scripts about universities with secret plans to eradicate creativity that they just aren't taking any more."
"Are they set in 2310?"
"A lot of them are," I said.
"Oh, that's a shame," she said and looked over at screenwriter Derek Haas, sitting a few seats down from me, signing books. He co-wrote WANTED (the movie with Angelina Jolie), 3:10 TO YUMA, and DECEIT. I am very jealous of him.
"Do you think that he might know of producers who are still looking for screenplays about a university with a secret plan to eradicate creativity in 2310?" she asked.
"He definitely would," I said. "You should go ask him."
When I left the conference a few minutes later, she was talking to him and he looked as if he was in pain. I won't say that I ran out of the hotel, but I was moving very quickly.
Some of my favorite book-to-movie adaptations include JAWS, GET SHORTY, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, THE CIDER HOUSE RULES… and now, UP IN THE AIR. You can learn so much by watching the movies and then reading the books (or vice versa, of course).*
What all of my favorite adaptations have in common is that the screenwriters made major departures from the source material and yet still captured the essence of the books and what made them great. Often, the movies actually improve on the source material. JAWS is a good example of that…and so is UP IN THE AIR.
Major changes from the book are inevitable and necessary. For one thing, you're telling a story in two different mediums. As a result, the biggest changes often have less to do with artistic concerns than they do with the realities of production. If you're doing a movie, and not a six hour mini-series, you're going to have to make some hard choice about what to drop and what to condense. To do that, you have to sit down with the book, strip everything away and find the true heart of the story… and then build backward from there, keeping only those characters, moments, and plot strands from the book that support the essence of the tale. Your job isn't to transcribe the book to film (which is what the first HARRY POTTER movie felt like to me), but to write a great movie. In many ways, the book becomes inspiration, rather than something you should follow with slavish devotion. That's especially hard for authors adapting their own books to pull off (read John Irving's excellent memoir of his CIDER HOUSE RULES adaptation for a glimpse at that…and he managed the feat brilliantly).
Whenever I adapt a book, I read it first for pure pleasure and then afterwards ask myself if I liked it or not…and, if so, why? What is the story? What makes it special? What are the defining moments? What is the author trying to say? What is the tone?
If I'm adapting the book for a movie, I also ask myself what are the three acts?
If I'm adapting the book for a TV pilot, I also ask myself, what is the franchise and what are the conflicts that can generate episodes every week?
Then I re-read the book and highlight the key plot moments, the best lines of dialog, and any prose that sets the tone, establishes the theme, or reveals an important detail. At the same time, I also write a broad outline of the story as it exists in the book.
Next, I sit down and decide what the story is that I want to tell. Who are the central characters? What is the essence of the book? And then I write my own outline. Once I am happy with that, I go back and pluck out key lines of dialog or description that I want in the script. And then I start writing.
With "Ella Clah," a CBS pilot, Bill Rabkin & I decided that the most intriguing conflict in Aimee & David Thurlo's series of books was in the heroine's backstory: a female, Navajo FBI agent caught between two worlds, two nations, two ways of life. In the books, she's an ex-FBI agent who leads the Major Crimes Unit of the Navajo Police… so by keeping her an FBI agent, we made a major deviation. But we didn't end there. We gave her a male, Hispanic partner with some cultural conflicts of his own. And we resurrected a character who was killed off before the story started in the first book: Ella's father, a Navajo preacher, who drove around the Rez spreading the gospel, much to the shame of Ella's brother, a traditional Indian medicine man. We did it because we thought those conflicts would give us lots of interesting stories. Ultimately, instead of adapting "Blackening Song" or one of the other Ella Clah novels, we ended up writing an entirely new story but kept the characters true to who they were in the books. The pilot didn't sell, but I'm pleased to say that the authors were as pleased with the adaptation as we were.
With Victor Gischler's "Gun Monkeys," I streamlined everything, dropped the hero's entire family (and the subplots that went along with them), condensed events, and created an entirely new third act that I hoped stayed true to everything that I, and thousands of readers, loved about the Edgar-nominated book. At first, Victor was stunned by the changes but after getting over the surprise, he discovered that he actually really liked what I did (or at least that's what he tells me).
What I'm leading up to with all this is that I think UP IN THE AIR is a brilliant adaptation, one that aspiring writers can and should learn from. And yet, in many ways, it's not an adaptation at all. Let me explain…
Walter Kirn's book is about Ray Bingham, a charming yet emotionally remote guy who spends 322 days a year in the air, going from city-to-city firing people, and is on the verge of reaching a million domestic frequent flier miles, something that only a few others have ever attained. Oh, and he's also a motivational speaker reluctantly facing the prospect of going back home for his sister's wedding. Beyond that, and maybe a dozen lines of dialog, screenwriters Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner scrapped everything else. Instead, they started from scratch with only the basic premise as a foundation.
It was a brave creative decision. And, I believe, also a necessary one.
They stripped the book down to its narrative studs — its unique voice, its attitude, and its central character. They created a much stronger narrative spine and added two new characters — a young woman at Ray's company who tags along with him on the road because she believes that his job can be done better via webcam and a traveling saleswoman much like himself who offers him no-strings-attached sex and might just be the soul-mate he never knew he was missing.
As different as UP IN THE AIR is from Walter Kirn's book, I would argue that it's a loyal adaptation, a pure distillation of the story's soul that is perfectly suited to the medium in which its being told. In many, many ways, I think the screenplay is a vast improvement over the book. The screen story is more focused, Ray Bingham is more sharply defined, and yet the message, the tone, and the unique point-of-view of the book remain the same.
In the end, virtually nothing from the book made it on the screen. And yet, I would argue that everything from the book is there. And, if you are a writer, accomplishing that contradiction is something to be admired.
UPDATE: I just saw Jason Reitman, who directed UP IN THE AIR, and his father Ivan Reitman, who co-produced it, interviewed together on Charlie Rose… and the story they tell of how the film was developed is very, very different than the one reported earlier in the press. Neither one of them mentioned the earlier scripts by Sheldon Turner and Ted Griffin, nor that Ivan was initially going to direct the movie for Dreamworks before Jason got involved. That said, it was interesting to hear Jason talk about the adaptation. His approach, not surprisingly, is to take what he needs from the source material to make a good movie…and go where-ever his inspiration takes him from there. I forgot to mention earlier that his adaptation of Christopher Buckley's THANK YOU FOR SMOKING is every bit as good as this one and is another terrific example of how to do it right.
*let's not forget the great TV series adapted directly from books, like DEXTER, TRUE BLOOD, REBUS and MORSE (and, dare I say it, NERO WOLFE). You can learn a lot from them, too…even the ones that aren't directly based on the books, but rather the character or the franchise, like BONES, WIRE IN THE BLOOD, and many of the episodes of MORSE. When developing a book into a pilot/TV series, you have an even bigger challenge than you would simply adapting it for a feature. Not only do you want to be true to the essence of the book, and build a three-act structure into the tale, but you also have to develop an open-ended franchise, and the strong central conflicts, that together will become the narrative engine capable of generating 100 episodes. BONES did that brilliantly…so did DEXTER.
I have a situation where a broadcast entity claims they want to hear my idea for a boxing series or made for TV movie. The characters belong to my family from a comic drawn by my father.
If a narrative is they way to go, what are the key points to include? Do I go as far as dialog and cameas shots and locations or simply text with main characters CAPITALIZED? Advice requested and appreciated.
A series treatment and a TV movie treatment are very different. A series treatment sells the characters and the franchise of the show…the relationships and format that will generate stories week after week. A TV movie treatment sells a story.
If the studio is already familiar with your Dad's comic, I don't know why they need you to come up with a series treatment…the strip itself sells that or they wouldn't be interested in the first place.
A series treatment isn't about telling a story…it's about describing the characters, how they interact within the unique format of your show. Who are they? What do they do? And how will who they are and what they do generate 100 interesting stories?
For a TV movie treatment, you're selling the characters and their story. At this point, you're trying to sell the broadstrokes…they can pay you to work out the rest. Write up a punchy over-view of what happens in the story, as if you were writing a review of a great movie (only minus the praise). You want to convey the style and tone of the movie. But don't go into great detail. Keep it short, tight and punchy.And whatever you do, DON'T include camera shots or dialogue.
Don't fixate on treatment format, because there isn't one. Tell your story in the style that works best for you. Don't worry about whether the character names are in capitals or not (it doesn't matter). Concentrate on telling a strong story.
(This is a repost from June 2005…and it was a blog post on this topic from Scott Myersthat inspired me to unearth it).
I've been getting variations of this email a lot lately, so I thought I'd share my answer to this one here:
I was wondering about your time management. How long does it take for you to write your blog everyday, and what type of writing schedule do you have, and is it iron-clad? Do you keep a notebook with you in case ideas pop up when you are doing errands, etc.?
Do you have moments when you don't know where your current story is going, and how do you fix that?
Love your books,
I prioritize based on deadlines, Teri. The project with the nearest deadline gets the most attention. Then again, sometimes I prioritize based on money. The project that's paying me the most gets my immediate attention…I mean, I am not going to move a project that's paying me, say, $3000 ahead of something that's paying me $35,000. That said, I've never missed a deadline, even when I had two broken arms, regardless of how much (or how little) I was getting paid.
I don't blog everyday. Sometimes I will blog two or three times in one day…sometimes I will go a week or more without blogging. I use the blog as a way to warm up before writing, or as a way to avoid writing, or as a way to stay at the computer when the writing isn't going well. You can sometimes tell by the nature of my posts how I'm using my blog at any given moment… (well, at least my brother Tod can tell).
I do carry around a notebook for ideas, story points or scenes for whatever I happen to be working on at any given time. I never leave the house without a notebook or a book to read.
What question haven't I answered? Oh yes, I often have problems with my books and scripts. I fix them by, well, fixing them. Often the problem lies not in the scene I'm struggling with but with the bigger story or character point that got me there.
I always outline before I write…so at least I know where i am going and roughly how to get there….but I inevitably deviate from the outline.
The Guardian reports that the only way to raise the quality of UK television series is to adopt the showrunner/writing room system prevalent in the U.S. They write, in part:
The only way to produce sophisticated, rich, long-running drama like The Wire or even ER is to use a team of writers who collaborate under a showrunner, a system the US studios has cracked. It's too much for even one great dramatist to write the whole thing, but you can't hire hack writers to work on episodes in isolation. Result: US viewers sit down to an evening of Damages; we get Casualty
in US television drama “the writer is God.” This is not because of literary cachet—it’s arisen out of aesthetic, technical and commercial need. Drama is incredibly expensive to make and economies of scale kick in when stories are told over 13 or 24 episodes. They cannot be written by one person alone, nor can they be effectively controlled by studio executives, actors or directors, whose talents by definition lie elsewhere. It requires a team of writers willing to develop character and narrative over a long haul, keeping it focused and fresh. It’s not the writer, singular, who is God in US television drama, but the role of the writer, generic, in the process.
[…]Although we are blessed with a tradition of great television dramatists, there’s no way that Alan Bleasdale, Dennis Potter or Jimmy McGovern could have written a dozen episodes of a show alone. We have recently imported the idea of showrunners for the resurrection of Dr Who and Survivors, but their power is limited, and the principle of collaboration doesn’t penetrate the lower echelons. Script editors and producers take a dim view of you talking to another writer without tight supervision. There is no financial incentive either. Why make someone else’s episode great when it might make yours look less good? Given that the running order can be changed at the last moment by management fiat, those collectively crafted character developments and story arcs will be binned anyway. Just write your own episode and cash that cheque.
I recommend Jukes' article, it's fascinating reading.
when it comes to constructing the plot for good genre mysteries (like X Files; Buffy; Angel; Firefly…and today you've got Supernatural; Smallville; Warehouse 13; Sanctuary; even Chuck, etc.), there is one question always be asked:
What is it…what is it really.
(In the case of procedurals and investigative mystery programs like 'Veronica Mars' or 'Castle' or 'Bones', the mantra becomes: Who is it...who is it really.)
[…]Of course, this is just one aspect to telling a good mystery story. To take it to the next level, you also need to pick an overall theme to flesh out the episode.
Dixon offers some examples from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to back up his points. His observations are well worth reading.
If you missed my live, interactive webcast last week, now you can catch the archive version. I've posted the first half of the show, where I talked about MONK with my special guest David Breckman (writer-producer-director of MONK), in three parts on YouTube or you can download it here. Unfortunately, there were technical problems at the studio and the second half of the live show, where I talked about my movie FAST TRACK, wasn't recorded.
I get two or three emails a day like this from strangers:
Forgive the intrusion. I want to connect with you and request your expertise as to the best way to pitch a series treatment to the cable and over the air TV networks.
I'm sure you've heard this story before. I have a treatment for a 60 minute scripted, dramatic series. […]My treatment is registered with the WGA and I have an NDA that I can send to anyone interested in reading it. Do you have any suggestions on who to approach and how? I realize I have no track record, but, I'm certain it will grab someone in the first 30 seconds.
I don't have time to answer the question individually for people, so I usually refer them to my book SUCCESSFUL TELEVISION WRITING and to this old blog post. Afterwards, they either tell me their situation is special because their Really Great Idea for a Television Series is the Best Really Great Idea for a Television Series to come along in decades…or they call me a jerk for not offering to read their Really Great Idea for a Television Series, refer them to my agent, and give them the names of people to contact in the industry.
And so it goes. You've heard it all before from me, again and again, and it's getting as tiresome for you to read about it as it is for me to deal with it.
But this time I'm leading up to a variation I received on the usual request and I think the exchange is worth sharing with you. I got the following email a few days ago:
I'm writing you because I read your blog and I thought that you would be a great source for information on finding writers. I am currently looking for writers for a couple projects that I'd like to produce and/or pitch and I was wondering if you could give me advice on finding writers for TV and Film. Are there any great messages boards or events to attend? Also, I know you're not a lawyer, but how should I protect my ideas and the writers ideas/work if they were to send me anything. Hope you can help!
That was a new twist on the old question for me. So I replied:
First, let me ask you a couple of blunt questions…with no offense
intended (these are questions you need to ask yourself, too, before
setting out to work with writers). What does a writer need you for?
What is the incentive for a writer work with you developing your ideas
into screenplays or pitches…as opposed to just trying to sell his
own ideas? You mention that you'd like to produce…but do you have
any actual producing experience?
I got a very nice reply, but it was clear that she was still missing the point of my questions:
I appreciate you taking the time to get back to me. I'm actually an actress here in LA and I see so many voids on TV and in Film and it's really been frustrating me lately. I have several projects/ideas that I'd like to put together, not for me to act in, but to produce to fill those voids, specifically, in single camera comedy for TV. I don't have any connections in Hollywood or producing experience, but I have the passion and desire to do what I need to do to make things happen. Also, I know people with producing experience who would be more than willing to help me along the way. The only problem is, I'm not a writer and I feel that writing for TV, especially comedy, requires great skills. If all else fails, I will write. I just thought that in LA there has to be writers that are looking to get their work out there as well and who are trying to target the same audience that I'd like to reach. This is my reason for reaching out to writers.
Here's an excerpt from my response:
Please don't take offense at what I am about to say, I just want to be
honest and straight-forward with you, it is not my intent to insult
you or hurt your feelings.
In Hollywood, ideas are cheap and execution is everything. What is
NYPD BLUE? A bunch of cops in NY solving crimes. ABC didn't buy the
idea…they bought Steven Bochco doing cops in NY solving crimes. What
is EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND? A married guy with kids whose parents live
across the street. CBS didn't buy the idea….they bought popular
standup comic Ray Romano and veteran comedy writer/producer Phil
Rosenthal executing that idea. What is BOSTON LEGAL? A bunch of
lawyers in Boston. ABC didn't buy the idea…they bought David E.
Kelley doing lawyers in Boston. The networks buy voice and experience
and relationships and proven success. I'm saying all that because what
you have are ideas…and you are looking for writers to flesh them
out. But since you aren't a writer, and you aren't (as far as I know)
an actress who has a huge following or production deals, you don't
really bring anything to the party, so-to-speak. You don't have the
voice, experience, the relationships, or the proven success.
The best way for you to find writers is to network among your friends.
Perhaps you can find a friend of a friend of a friend who has writing
talent but lacks inspiration (perhaps a friend of one of those producers you know)
You need to find someone who wants to
work with you because they like you on a personal level…not because
you are offering any real opportunity…because, let's face it, you
Why not try writing the scripts yourself…why wait until "all else fails?"
I haven't heard back from her yet, but I'll update this post if I do.
Author Jean Henry Mead interviewed me for the Murderous Musings blog and got me to blather on and on about myself and my books, something I hardly ever get a chance to do with my blog, my twitter page, my Facebook page, my… well, you get the idea. Here’s an excerpt:
Lee, when did you realize you were a writer?
I’ve always known. When I was ten or eleven, I was already pecking novels out on my Mom’s old typewriters. The first one was a futuristic tale about a cop born in an underwater sperm bank. I don’t know why the bank was underwater, or how deposits were made, but I thought it was very cool. I followed that up with a series of books about gentleman thief Brian Lockwood, aka “The Perfect Sinner,” a thinly disguised rip-off of Simon Templar, aka “The Saint.” I sold these stories for a dime to my friends and even managed to make a dollar or two. In fact, I think my royalties per book were better then than they are now.