The advice and rantings of a Hollywood script reader tired of seeing screenwriters make the same mistakes, saving the world from bad writing one screenplay at a time. Learn what it takes to get your script past one of these mythical Gatekeepers.
This week marks the launch of CBS's new summer adventure series, BLOOD & TREASURE, detailing the adventures of a former FBI agent and a thief as they race to get to Cleopatra's remains before a madman who sells blood antiquities to fund terrorist attacks.
BLOOD AND TREASURE Official Trailer (HD) CBS Adventure Series - YouTube
Matthew Federman is the series's co-creator and executive producer, with writing partner Stephen Scaia, this is his first series on the air after a long career in TV that began on JUDGING AMY and included such series as JERICHO and HUMAN TARGET (both of which he was on with friend-of-the-blog Robert Levine, who I interviewed long ago here.) His credits also include WAREHOUSE 13 and LIMITLESS.
Matthew was kind enough to answer a few questions about the series, the writing process that goes into blending an Indiana Jones-type romp with terrorism and what he looks for in a writing staff.
Unlike most of the shows that were just ordered off of pilot season, BLOOD & TREASURE was a straight-to-series order. Can you talk about how that impacts the creative process when your focus from the start is telling an entire season's story? Is it different breaking a season when you don't have a completed pilot as a proof of concept for the room to work on from the start?
My writing partner Stephen Scaia and I sold the show with a script and bible that laid out the first season—which would have been the same in either case. So going to straight to series didn’t really affect the creative process that much for us. We still started the room with figuring out the big picture stuff, how to make the arc we had work, and then diving into 102. It did mean starting without knowing who our actors were which is a little scary because you don’t know who you’re writing to, but our cast ended up being amazing and very much what we had imagined so we didn’t need to tweak things too much for them.
Here’s how it did affect things: our first episode ended up being huge, like 10-15 minutes over. They told us it was long and we kept cutting it at script stage but somehow it was still way long. Had it been a pilot we would have had to cut a lot of stuff that we loved to deliver it and since the show is so serialized we probably would have lost some key plot elements. But because we were straight to series we were able to move a chunk of 101 into 102 in editing (basically all of the original Act 4).
We had called it a two-parter anyway and in our hearts hoped that they would do a two hour premier which we thought was the best way to launch the show based on our story. We were told in no uncertain terms that that would not happen. The issue wasn’t creative, just corporately it’s a thing CBS doesn’t do. Then when it came time to do focus groups the biggest issue that came from the groups was they didn’t like how it ended. Almost every question they had would have been solved by the old Act 4 that got moved, or the rest of 102. One of our great execs suggested they try testing 101/102 together for focus groups to see what affect it had and the change was stark—most of the issues went away immediately.
To our great relief they decided to air it as a two-hours pilot. Creative people knock focus groups but they really saved us in this case, and I give so much credit to the Studio and Network execs for being flexible and doing what was best for the show. They’ve been great collaborators. The other thing going straight-to-series affected was our big set—Antony and Cleopatra’s tomb—which launches the show. The set is crazy awesome. And really expensive. Like more expensive than a lot of pilots, for a set you’d only see once (as far as we knew). But because the cost was spread over 13 we could do it and really introduce the show with size and scope that you normally don’t see on Network TV. And then we had this giant, beautiful set just sitting there and we thought, okay, maybe we can get some more use out of it. So you’ll see versions of it again, including in the two-hour pilot in a flashback. We really got our money out of that space and in the end it’s very existence affected story.
The promotion material for the show underlines the fact that your villain is funding his terrorist activities with the sale of stolen antiquities. Can you talk about integrating this aspect of real-world terrorism into what also plays as an Indiana Jones-like treasure quest romp?
We had learned that a major source of funding for ISIS (behind oil) was that they would loot antiquities from the regions they were in and sell them on what is now referred to as the “blood antiquities market.” Then (as with Palmyra) they would blow up the big structures they couldn’t move for PR value, drawing attention to their group. We thought we had a unique opportunity to talk about some real world issues around blood antiquities (a market created by wealthy people and museums) through the filter of a fun adventure show.
And while that seems counter-intuitive, we had a model in Indiana Jones for how to do it. The Nazis are real bad guys who committed vast atrocities. They give everything stakes—but the adventure is still fun because you’re with Indy and he has a great character story going on with Marion and the audience wants them to win—and get together. We decided to fictionalize our bad guy for a number of reasons, including not wanting to be insensitive, but also to give the show the ability to be a little lighter. We didn’t want it to feel like the show 24 with treasure.
There's a promotional video out where several of your actors talk about how the scripts integrate real history into the show's mythology. I'm sure that plenty of events are fictionalized. Can you give us some sense of the thought process behind where real history takes a left turn into BLOOD & TREASURE history?
We know that this is a race to find Cleopatra, which hasn't been found yet in real life. How do you build that kind of quest in a way that feels credible and fun at the same time? Our thinking is, there’s the stuff in history we know—that stuff we don’t mess with. There’s the stuff we don’t know because the history is lost—that stuff we can play around with, so long as we’re not impugning anyone with how we fictionalize it, or making up anything that feels contradictory to known events or people.
I think it should be pretty clear when we’re saying something known or we’re playing in our sandbox, our characters—mostly Danny, sometimes Dr. Castillo—usually says some version of “We believed [X] was the case but what if [Y].” Our hope is it ignites an interest in history for people who can then search out the stuff we’re taking off from and learn more about it, but we need to do it in such a way that it doesn’t completely slow down the story to become a history lesson.
The same video also discusses how the show takes us to the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Cairo, Paris, London, the Alps, Turkey, Rome... and Boston. On any show you're going to have to deal with the logistics of location. When you're talking about a globe-trotting show that presumably doesn't have the budget to go anywhere. How much work goes into picking those locations, because I assume it's not a case where you can go, "The African desert fell out, we need the story to work for the woods of Vancouver."
We let the story dictate the locations at first. We knew the show would be Middle Eastern/Western Europe focused because of what our story was. The whole center of the season though we weren’t sure where we’d go. Our production is based in Montreal so we knew the looks/countries we could represent there. We had some ideas for where else we’d go that would make sense. But as the story went forward the writers pitched something that would mean going to Morocco which wasn’t planned and I said, “Let’s hold on and talk to Steve about how reasonable that is.”
Stephen was focused on the production side of things which eventually meant living up in Montreal and also taking a world-wide scouting trip to see locations before later going abroad to shoot. Steve talked about the idea with our producing partners and one of them said we could go to Morocco, and in fact get a lot of great looks for different places there. So a big part of our plan changed, but it started with the story.
What it comes down to is we know every episode should hop around a little, so we try to get the story working knowing those movements will be necessary. We talk a lot about building things modularly, which means the story can change locations, or even the planned action can change, but what happens story-wise doesn’t need to change (aside for some tweaks) because it’s about how our characters are either working together or failing to.
You've mentioned on Twitter that this was your fourth or fifth effort at doing a treasure hunt show. Can you talk about what was it about this show that got a green light and what might have been missing in those earlier attempts?
It absolutely got the green light this time because of the stakes that using the real world ISIS issue gave us. In the past we had to kind of narratively explain why culture and art were important so when it came down to people dying over them it would make sense…and it’s a tough buy for a lot of people despite that we know it’s true historically (including groups like the Monuments Men in WW2 that literally put themselves in danger to protect cultural heritage).
Looking back on it, I’m glad it took this long and this was the one that got made because Stephen and I are better writers and producers, we never could have made the show this way in the past because it wasn’t really being done. Also, our cast is amazing and our leads Matt Barr (Danny) and Sofia Pernas (Lexi) have this crazy chemistry that really pops off the screen and makes the show work on a level it never could have before. I’m not one of those people that says “everything happens for a reason” but in the case of this show it feels that way.
I'm curious what you looked for when you were assembling your room. You've worked on a number of shows, you've seen how plenty of staffs work. What was at the top of your mind when you were assembling your team for BLOOD & TREASURE?
We look for a staff that represents the places that the show would be going. Diversity wasn’t just a mandate we were given, it was for us a necessity to be able to tell this story that spans cultures and is about how they clash and how they work together which is basically the story of history. (Also with explosions! Don’t worry, it won’t feel like homework!). So we wanted a staff that could give an International perspective, and then we also looked for people that got the show, not just what the show did on the surface, i.e. “it’s fun” but people who saw the show we were really making beneath that.
One of our early meetings first season was with a brother/sister writing team (Siavash and Dana Farahani) who were born in Iran and lived as refugees for a time after their family fled. They mentioned an early scene in the script when Danny first comes to recruit Lexi to go on this adventure because he believes he needs her unique skillset how despite being locked up in a police car, Lexi isn’t convinced to go with Danny at first. The thing that changes her whole demeanor and shifts the scene is when Danny mentions the Pyramid that was attacked (which starts our show). Lexi, an Egyptian, immediately loses her snarky combativeness—jaded as she is you can see how affected she is by the loss to her country and her culture. It’s the appeal to that loss that gets her to go on the journey.
They got that moment in a way a lot of Americans wouldn’t have. It was the moment I knew we’d be hiring them. Because they got that the show was about this intersection between history, culture and identity—which then we put through the fun filter.
We joke that the show should taste like cotton candy and then expand into a steak in your stomach. It is intended to be a fun adventure, and in a TV landscape of very dark shows (many of which I love) we think that is something people will be hungry for. If a family sits and watches the show, the fun is probably all the kids will see and we think that’s great. But hopefully the parents see there’s something more going on. Everyone we hire is someone we think can bring that dual perspective to the show: how can this say something while also being a ton of fun?
If you're looking for more of Matthew's insight into TV writing, check out this threeparttwitter thread about what he learned running the writers' room during season one. (All parts linked here.) BLOOD & TREASURE premieres Tuesday, May 21 on CBS at 9pm,
Some thoughts on next week's BARRY finale. Sunday's penultimate episode had Barry racing to stop his former partner Fuchs from murdering Barry's acting coach Gene. Complicating matters is that last season, Barry had to kill Gene's girlfriend Moss, a police detective, when she figured out Barry was a hitman.
Barry killed her and hid the body and her car in the woods - which is where Fuchs has led Gene, seemingly ready to expose Barry's secret to Gene before killing him and framing him for Moss's murder.
An obvious issue is that since Fuchs has presented himself as a friend of Barry's, even if Barry gets there in time, Gene will wonder what Barry's doing with someone that dangerous, how this person knew where to find Moss, and how Barry even knew to be there. It's a chain of questions that leads to the exposure of Barry's secret, making it possible that when Barry gets there, he might have to kill Gene.
Here's my speculation: We’ve already seen Barry murder two “good” people he didn’t want to. This is why I think we won’t see any scenario in which he has to kill Gene next week. That doesn’t mean Fuchs WON’T, but I also doubt that.
I think the most likely scenario is that Barry kills Fuchs, saves Gene and Gene gives the performance of his life convincing Barry he finds none of this suspicious. And the drive of the next season is Gene putting all the pieces together.
There’s too much meat left on Gene’s story for me to think he ends up dead next week. Killing Gene neither opens any doors, nor tells us something we don’t know. Keeping him alive offers more dramatic possibility.
I tweeted these thoughts and it prompted someone to ask, "How is it I’m still rooting for BARRY knowing he killed Gene’s GF? Was it the long delayed actually showing of the killing?"
It’s because the presentation of the story is all from his POV, which makes us complicit in his perspective. We understand the reasoning and the emotion of his choice. That identification makes us susceptible to Barry’s conviction he “had” to do it.
Moss is coded as the antagonist and so it subverts our default to see her as the hero, even though, objectively she would be. The show makes Barry charming enough that he wins us over. He kills people, but most of them are bad. Why should we care?
That’s how we’re seduced to his side. We see it all through his eyes. And at S1’s end, when our choice is “kill or go to jail,” we’re already on that dark side with Barry.
Because we had no other choice.
A response to that was: "And it’s not the same as rooting for a genuinely horrible person like in Breaking Bad. Barry’s not evil, he’s broken."
Here’s my question: “isn’t it?” Do the distinctions in motivation matter?
Supporting Barry seems different from supporting Walter White because his overall arc is coded as redemptive. He WANTS to be better, and we’re giving him points for effort. Walt’s is pretty clearly a decent fueled by lust for power. That trips our “bad guy” alarm more easily.
What Bill Hader and Alec Berg have done with BARRY is quite remarkable. There's no reason we should empathize at all with this hardened killer, but they make Barry so damn relatable that the audience is often seduced by the lure of seeing themselves in Barry's shoes. That's the power of writing and performing.
Note: mega-spoilers abound. This is your on warning.
After 22 films in 11 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe reaches a climax with AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Though plenty of the films in the series are completely inessential to most continuing arcs and each other, this is the film where everything is brought to bear and it's a clear finish line for many elements that have defined these movies to this point.
I apparently didn't write a full review of last year's AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, though I remember at the time saying that it was a perfect adaptation of the company-wide mega-crossover genre of story, with all the good and bad that implies. I have a hard time rating it as a movie because it's almost impenetrable to anyone who hasnt' seen any of the other films. It's a big season finale and that's very much how I'd describe ENDGAME. I don't thing either of these are the best MOVIES Marvel has to offer, but they're certainly the MOST movie.
ENDGAME picks up in the aftermath of Thanos's victory in INFINITY WAR. As promised, he wiped out half of all living things in the universe and what's left of the Avengers sets out to... well... avenge. Twenty minutes into the film, they catch up to Thanos and learn he's destroyed the Infinity Stones along with any chance of undoing what he did. Thanks to Thor, he's given an execution so swift and brutal that there's almost no satisfaction in seeing him taken down. And at this point I realized 90% of the trailer shots had already occurred and I had NO idea where the film was going from here.
I managed to go in almost entirely unspoiled and I encourage most viewers to do the same. There's a lot of fun in the discovery of where our surviving characters have ended up following a five-year jump into the future. Whatever issues I take with some of the plot logistics - and there are plenty - the film rises above them because of the emotional investment it builds for each character. There's an advantage that the audience has spent a decade with many of these people, but ENDGAME isn't lazy about earning the emotional stakes facing each core character.
And that is the real success of these films. I see naysayers often sneer that these films "never take any chances." Listen, bub, in 2008, it was an insane risk to launch an entire cinematic universe on the back of a C-list character played by an actor with several well-publicized falls from grace and already on his (at least) second comeback. Further, the idea to do a movie that combined ALL of these B & C listers was also a huge gamble. If it tanked, it could have taken down multiple franchises at once. Then in Phase Two, we got a film that tried to inject politics into this superhero verse, a film with a talking tree and raccoon, and another film that leaned more heavily into Norse mythology.
Not every big swing has paid off, but there's a pretty high quality average and the good films have been REALLY good. To pull off that kind of consistency with so many different films released in such a short time is nothing short of astonishing. The fact they've made it look so effortless that people can claim, "They don't take any chances" is nothing short of remarkable. Marvel has learned from its early mistakes (IRON MAN 2) and corrected them going forward.
A big part of Marvel's secret sauce came from creating compelling characters on screen that the audience became invested in. I’m a DC guy, barely read the mythos of the players who made up the core MCU, and the films work because they make you love these people. You don’t have to have spent 30 years buying the MCU characters books to be able to appreciate the movie incarnations. These aren’t movies made for “the fans,” they’re made for EVERYONE. To achieve that when starting with traditional B-listers is, well, a marvel.
And that is why ENDGAME works, because it's not trying to be some profound meditation on power and mankind, with its players merely acting as organic position papers. It's about people with real emotions and personalities coping with fantastic situations. Even in its more deliberate moments, the pace never drags and the character journeys drive the story forward.
It delivers on the big moments too. The last 45 minutes or so over the film feels like it could have been related in an issues worth of those double-page spreads with a thousand characters drawn by George Perez. To see every heroic character rally for the final fight, taking their positions for the SAVING PRIVATE RYAN of superhero movies is just one of those powerful wish fulfillment moments that the best of these movies thrive on. We've followed the Tony/Pepper relationship from the very first film now, so it was very hard not to stand up and cheer when Pepper joins the final battle in her own Iron Man armor.
It'd be easy for this review to turn into gushing about all the little moments in this final battle, but suffice to say everyone gets their moment. My only quibble is that the fight is staged in such a visually uninteresting locale.
But the back and forth reversals of that battle are beautifully done. Even before the battle's scale expands we get the pleasure of seeing Iron Man, Captain America and Thor working together to take down Thanos in one of the best examples of super-teamwork put on screen. One payoff in here is one of the film's biggest applause moment.
There's a real risk that Captain Marvel could have come off as a convenient late addition that tips the scales and overshadows everyone else. Was her rescue of Tony and Nebula convenient? Maybe a little, but I like the staging, with her hovering before a near-death Tony like some kind of beautiful angel. As a fan of Brie Larson since UNITED STATES OF TARA, I love what she brought to the part - confidence without cockiness, just complete self-assuredness that she's seen more than her new teammates can understand. I wish we'd seen her clash more with Tony and she had all too brief chemistry with Thor, but it probably was wise the film establishes her as a player, then sends her off long enough for us to forget about her until she shows up as the cavalry to the cavalry. The staging of that entrance is great too, with Thanos's ship realizing it has a much bigger problem than the armies and demigods fighting on the ground.
But it would have been a cheat for the new toy who was only established one film prior to end up as THE key player in the battle. She comes in, gets her moment, but the filmmakers don't overuse her. That said, I can't help but wonder if she would have been able to better handle the strain of using the Infinity Gauntlet. And it all ends the way we probably expected it to - with the death of an Avenger. Tony Stark sacrifices himself using the energy of the Iron Infinity Gauntlet to defeat Thanos and his army. Everyone was expecting Cap to call back to "I can do this all day" while making a last stand against the mad god, but no one expected Thanos's final words "I am inevitable" to be match by Tony's "I am Iron Man" right before he unleashes the battle-ending power.
Tony's sacrifice is well-foreshadowed and gives the finale of the movie its necessary emotional heft. It's a good death and the mourning is given its necessary due. There truly is a sense that everything has changed for the MCU going forward and the only issue with Tony's death is that it overshadows the mourning for Black Widow too.
Enough about what worked, what doesn't work?
"Your plan is based on BACK TO THE FUTURE?" The film's approach to time travel is frustrating. With the Infinity Stones destroyed, the plan becomes to travel back in time and borrow the stones so that everything can be undone in the future. It's not unlike BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II where Marty has to run around the events of the previous film to retrieve the almanac. Most of this conceit works, particularly when Banner gets a lecture about how removing the stones from their place would create a branching, alternate timeline. To prevent that, Banner promises the stones will be returned to the instant they were taken from.
Well, that's all fine and good except during Tony, Steve and Banner's trip to the aftermath of the Battle of New York, Tony slips up in getting the Tesseract and also inadvertently frees Loki. This lets Loki flee the scene with that stone and therefore cause a major divergence in the timeline. Weirdly the film brushes past this and I think having a major paradox go uncorrected here means that when an even BIGGER paradox results later, it really adds to the feeling that actually none of this should be able to happen.
That bigger paradox? With several Avengers sent to 2014 to retrieve two other stones, Past Thanos learns of this when he captures the present day Nebula, who's part of that team. He realizes he won the first time and then places Past Nebula in her place so when she returns to the Avengers's present day, she's able to open a doorway for Past Thanos and his army to arrive and decimate the Earth. This brings a lot of time travel problems with it, particularly when it seems they're all destroyed rather than sent back to the past. With Thanos removed from 2014, none of what happened in the previous movie should come to pass, but the film straight up ignores this implication.
Like I said, if that was the only abuse of time travel logic, it would have been easier to swallow.
Captain America's fate - Steve Rogers's destiny carries similar issues. Post-battle, Steve is charged with returning the Infinity Stones to the past and also making sure everything plays out as it was meant to. (So maybe we should presume HE takes care of Loki?) Once he does that, rather than return to the present, he goes back to Peggy Carter post-WWII. The next we see of him is as an old man in the present, explaining to his friends that he opted to stay in the past and get married.
It hits the right emotional notes but leaves some lagging logical ones. Steve has been a man out of time for much of the series, so him getting a second chance isn't off-base as an ending. Peggy has been consistently played as his true love, so returning for her wouldn't be so bad... but for the fact we know she had a husband, a family and a life that - until this film - presumably didn't include him. There's something selfish about Cap knowing this and going back to take this man's place.
Sure, there's some wiggle room for us to assume this was "meant" to happen and that husband was always a time displaced Cap. It gets more complicated when we realize all that Steve knows about the future and all the things he had to stay on the sidelines for and "let" happen in order to be with Peggy. He's okay with leaving Bucky to be brainwashed as the Winter Soldier? To let him murder dozens, including Howard Stark and his wife? He never says ANYTHING to Peggy about the fact that the secret agency she's building is being infiltrated by Hydra spies?
I'm willing to meet the movie halfway here, but there's a huge can of worms that gets opened. It's another point that works up until you give it much scrutiny.
The Death of Black Widow - I'll admit, when it was clear that Hawkeye and Black Widow were being sent for the Soul Stone, I was sure I knew how this would play out. The two would battle over who got to sacrifice their lives for the cause, with Barton eventually taking one for the team and Natasha mourning her friend. That assumption was based on the fact that it feels like no one has EVER known what to do with Hawkeye. He spent 2/3 of the first AVENGERS under mind control and was so under-developed that that second AVENGERS could introduce an entire family for him and we were able to just shrug and go, "Yeah, I guess that makes sense." After that, he was basically another body in CIVIL WAR and I bet you barely noticed he wasn't in INFINITY WAR, did you?
So yeah, it seemed pretty clear that he was a safe kill for the film in that someone who seemed to matter could meet their end without disrupting the narrative. If I'd been thinking about it differently, I'd have realized that OF COURSE meant that Natasha had to be the one to die for any emotional resonance. Barton's biggest emotional tie on the team was her, while Natasha has close ties to Bruce and Steve in addition to Barton.
For the character's sake, I'm glad her death happened in a place where the movie could breathe and let the impact set in. This wasn't BUFFY killing off Anya in the heat of battle and having to move on. Her teammates are given a moment to mourn, though I feel Tony's death and funeral end up stealing the spotlight away from that completely by the end of the film. (The Hulk/Hawkeye scene was a nice effort at showing the movie didn't totally forget about her, but there was still something missing there.) Important stray questions:
- The Ancient One makes a BIG deal about the fact that bad things happen if the Infinity Stones are removed from her timeline so, uh, should we be concerned that from the start of the movie onward, Thanos has completely destroyed these important universe-binding things?
- I know poking at this paradox is a fool's errand, but if Past Nebula is dead even before Stark snaps Thanos's army away, how is Present Nebula still there at the end?
- That shot of everyone at the funeral was TOTALLY stitched together from green screen shots of the various clusters, right? And very interesting that Carol stood so apart from everyone.
- But seriously, who was Katherine Langford going to play? I know the internet lost their minds speculating she was Kate Bishop, but I feel like there's room to speculate she was playing an older version of Morgan Stark, maybe in a deleted post-credit scene flash forward? I could see a sort of "next generation" moment with her building her own armor.
In the final analysis, this is the kind of superhero spectacle that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. To pull of something of this scare while juggling a number of emotional balls to every actor involved, along with writers Stephen McFeely & Christopher Markus and directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.
There are a few resources I consider indispensable for aspiring writers. One of them is Jeffrey Lieber's Showrunner Rules, which offers a window into just how massive the job of running a TV show is. Another is the podcast Children of Tendu, created by Javier Grillo-Marxauch and Jose Molina, who put together possibly the most detailed, piece-by-piece breakdown of what it means to be on a writing staff, what the day-to-day work is like, how to be the kind of staff writer your showrunner wants, what to do and what not to do.
Well, Javi has a new book out today, called Shoot That One. (It's a sequel to his earlier collection of essays, Shoot This One.) The essays included in this volume all relate in one way or another to the creative process. Javi's voice will be familiar to any regular listener of Children of Tendu. It's impossible to read this book and not hear him in your head as you move through an examination of the creative process on Lost, ruminations on how his opinion the first STAR TREK film went from being that of a bore to a more profound experience, processing complete apathy to THE LAST JEDI, and "The Eleven Laws of Showrunning."
There's a lot of compelling advice and observations worth unpacking in this tome and so rather than write a review, I decided to have a conversation with Javi about some of the themes across his book and some of the questions that his essay's provoke.
I feel like one theme of the book - either intentional or unintentional - is how you demystify the creative process. "The Lost Will and Testament of Javier Grillo-Marxuach" is ultimately an explanation of how "Did you guys have everything planned or were you making it up as you were going along?" is a question where both answers can be a little bit true, even at the same time. I'm curious about your own awakening to that paradox as a writer. Was this something you picked up on after being staffed on your first shows? Was there a light bulb moment for you or was it a gradual awakening?
One of the great things about being a huge George Lucas fan of my vintage is that you got to see his perception of the Star Wars universe evolve almost from interview to interview. The story of how he came up with the story, how many trilogies he really had planned, and his overall intentions really changed a LOT from year to year and interview to interview. The creation myths along many of the franchises we grew up with were a lot less hermetically sealed in the early days of tentpole/blockbuster filmmaking - not to mention less legendary - and I remember from an early age suspecting that the machinery behind the shiny stuff on screen may not have been as smooth as advertised.
You also had things like David Gerrold writing a book like “The World of Star Trek,” which was a really no holds barred account of that show warts and all... all of which is a long way of saying, I always suspected the Wizard of Oz was a guy straining at machines behind a curtain... but it didn’t really land on me until I started working in TV professionally and really got to see how the sausage is made. A lot of the fun of making TV is coming into it, hearing the showrunner’s ideas for the long term and then filling them out: more than anything else, the job is to make it look like those ideas were monolithic in the first place. I often hear - when something clicks on the board in the writers room - someone say “it’s like we planned it!” my answer is always: “yes! we’re planning it right now!” It is in that contradiction that you find the real magic.
In sort of a glancing blow, your essay indicates several short-lived shows may have met that fate because they were winging it from day one, so I understand that extreme is possible. I'm sort of curious about what you would think about working on a staff where the showrunner did claim to have plotted out several seasons of story in advance, had a complete master plan and didn't deviate from it. Can such a beast truly exist?
I once took a meeting on a show that promised a huge, longitudinal alien mythology... I went into the meeting and asked “where are you going with this?” And they replied “you worked on Lost, you tell us.” I politely demurred, but what my inside voice was screaming was “FUCK YOU PAY ME!”
Look, there’s always going to be people who claim they had it all figured out in the first place: it’s part of the hagiographical retconning of the “genius/visionary showrunner” narrative. When an artist produces a hit in a mass medium, a huge machinery moves in to make sure that the artist is perceived as a genius whose ideas all sprang unbidden like Athena from Zeus’s brow.
The reality is ALWAYS, if not much different, at least a lot messier. A lot of J. Michael Straczinsky’s fans defend his contention that he had all of Babylon 5 plotted out in advance - but when you watch the show, you can see the seams and on-the-go fixes on screen in the form of cast changes and story detours and other such patches. I think it’s absolutely possible to have it all figured out, but too rigid an adherence to a plan often impoverishes the final product: no human has ideas so bulletproof that they can’t be improved upon, especially in the case of a longitudinal narrative. Put succinctly, I defer to a maxim commonly used in the boxing world: “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
If I'm the showrunner and I come in on the first day of the writers room with a 150-page document (either literally or metaphorically, in my head) and communicate to my staff - "Consider this your WAZE route to syndication," am I doing my duty as a showrunner, or have I committed a different kind of sin?
I dunno, I’m not the UN Security Council of showrunning! Every show has different needs, but what a showrunner should strive to do, in my accounting is to be honest and communicative - and to always explain what the show is in concrete ways that can result in action and execution from the staff. I dunno if giving your staff a 150 page document about the show is the RIGHT way to do it, but I would at least commend you for trying to explain yourself and your show!
Again and again, the essays seem to return to the notion of the relationship between the art and the audience, and how it's an evolving thing over time. In various essays you use your reactions to THE LAST JEDI, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE versus the new STAR TREKS to chart this. Do you think some of the strong negative reactions to some of these is the result of those people not being able to evolve? Or is It that your work has given you a better appreciation for the creative process in general? Do you see a road back from binary reactions of "This was the greatest thing ever!" and "This sucks and if you like it, YOU suck!"
I am sure that working in the mines day in and day out has had a lot to do with my belief that eventually, becoming “jaded” to at least the idea that each now thing, or reinvention of a thing, has to be either THE BEST THING EVER or THE WORST THING EVER is a good step in your personal growth. Mostly though, I think that it is unfair to ask a piece of popular culture, even one as multivariant and endemic as Star Wars of Star Trek to continue to furnish you with emotions you had in childhood when your exposure to narrative storytelling was much less evolved and your capacity to experience things as being truly new was much greater. No work of art can survive that expectation. If you love Star Wars, you can now curate your preferred version from thousands of different interpretations of that world by different artists - but to keep demeaning that it make you feel the way you did when you were seven, that’s just silly.
The reason Star Wars, Harry Potter, Star Trek and all those things have survived and become so meaningful is that they have within them iconic and totemic ideas, characters, and objects - as fans, we need to be able to commune with these totemic ideas while making peace with the truth that we all age out of things, even the things we love. It doesn’t mean they don’t love us back, it means that we - as humans - have a lot more bandwidth for change in our trip through the universe than does tightly controlled, corporate-owned material that depends primarily on a demographic target for its existence.
5. I think your essay, "The Eleven Laws of Showrunning" is a piece that's very much in conversation with Jeff Lieber's "Showrunner's Rules." I feel like a lot of Jeff's focus boils down to demonstrating that showrunning is like having 300 or so small jobs, while ALSO bringing in a lot of writing tips. And your essay seems to take that and run in the direction of "This is how you can mismanage ALL those responsibilities and cripple the writing at the same time." I think the difference is, Jeff seems to be speaking to people yet to attain that rank, while your tone is that of trying to correct a bad apple. I'm nodding along with your piece, but at the same time, I wondered, has your more adversarial tone led you to butt heads with anyone who feels they fit the profile?
The version of the piece in the book was my first draft. I wrote it during a time in my career when - after more than twenty years - the universe kept saying “hold my beer” whenever I thought I had seen it all in terms of toxic upper management. I was warned by a number of friends and agents to not publish it - it’s a mean and strident rant that most likely preaches to the converted. The most publicly available version of the essay - the “nice” version - was a cut I made to whittle it all down to the management lessons and actionable advice for writers. That version will always be available for free on my website - this version is more for those who are curious about just how pissed off I really was when I wrote this.
I’m putting something incendiary out there - it was written with the intent to be rude, confrontational, and offensive because the “nice” way doesn’t always get through to people... the irony of it is that most of the people who could use the lesson in the present day are going to read it (even in the “nice” version) and think “what a schmuck, he doesn’t understand how hard I have it.” So, really, it’s for the up and comers.
I expect to make no converts out of the already powerful and well-placed. I believe that once you have been canonized, you pretty much calcify - this may not be true for all; many retain their ability to evolve, but a lot of writers, once validated, really see no way to change what works for them. This is especially true in a field where the pressure and stakes are so high that the default becomes “whatever it takes for me to be the genius I have been told I am.” The essay is and was always intended for people who are not at the showrunning ranks, people like you who nod while they read it: it is intended to say “you know that shit your boss is putting you through? You’re right to think it’s not cool - and when you are the boss, don’t do it, or this is the tone that everyone will want to take with you, but won’t for being afraid of losing their livelihood.”
The question the essay truly poses is “when you get to the top, do you want people to talk this way behind your back or not?”
I have had no run-ins with anyone who “matches the profile,” though I have had second-hand accounts of some people with whom I have worked responding to it very negatively. My answer to anyone who gets butthurt because they “match the profile” is “tough shit, Sparky.” If someone I worked with responds negatively, maybe they need to know just how negatively their management style affects the lives of others. No matter where i go, I give a hundred and ten percent and fight for the right to break my back for my showrunner... but the one thing I didn’t do is sign some invisible contract that says I have to enable a showrunner’s bullshit self-image years or decades after I stopped working for them (or was fired by them) because their ego can’t handle being seen as fallible.
Besides, I don’t name names, I just call out the behavior. The sad truth is that most of these “creative visionaries” not only think they are unique in their genius, they also think they are unique in their failings. “No one understands my pain” is the rallying cry of narcissists across the land. I think it hurts a lot of people to find out I am not talking about them individually, but rather that they have the exact same shortcomings that a lot of other people have had in their position - that they are not very special snowflakes even in their bad side.
I read Lieber’s showrunner rules on twitter and respect what he is doing. I think we are after similar game with different methodologies - he’s going for the micro, I’m going for the macro. I think our work is complimentary. I also know that I have put enough material out there that is detailed, positive, encouraging, and educational that allowing fury to have the hour for one piece of writing is not going to change that.
6. There's a lot in "The Eleven Laws of Showrunning" that calls out toxic workplaces, and despite being written years ago, much of it resonates with what we now know about the situations on BULL, NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, ONE TREE HILL and many others. It's a pretty clear demonstration these issues didn't spring up overnight, but were more pervasive than most wanted to admit. Did you feel a reckoning coming when writing that piece or were you cynical about that cycle of abuse being broken?
I don’t believe in “reckonings” as much as I believe in slow, painful, and unsatisfactory evolution fraught with compromise. But I believe steadfastly in that evolution and I have a lot of faith that our arc as an industry will bend toward something better. The one thing that will happen both to those of us who are actively trying to be better and those who are comfortable in their assholery is that we will all eventually retire, die, or fade in whatever ability made us hireable. The challenge is, can those of us on the good side make more people share our beliefs than the others can create more like themselves by perpetuating the cycles of abuse?
The #metoo movement has been amazing, and a collateral benefit of the effort to call out sexism and misogyny in TV workplaces has been to shine a light overall on a culture that very frequently tolerates many different kinds abuse in deference to the bottom line. This climate has also made it less dangerous for people like me to maybe have more pointed and public opinions about certain things with a little less fear of retribution... but who knows? Check with me again in a few months... if I’m still working, then it all worked out.
7. Your stated mission with Children of Tendu, and the implied mission of many of your essays, is to raise the caliber of the up-and-coming writer class. You've been doing Tendu for about four years now - have you seen any impact of that sort?
I hope so. Tendu has been incredibly fulfilling, as have been me and Jose’s efforts to continue its mission by teaching our “Living in the Middle” seminars at the Writers Guild, and by trying to be better in our own creative lives. A lot of up and coming writers have contacted us to say that the podcast has helped them, so hopefully, this is our little contribution to a change coming from a lot of different directions. A lot of the work I expect to do in the next few years will be to help first time showrunners as a co-showrunner or as a “strong number two,” if some of those come out of the ranks of Tenduvians, and they practice what we preached, then I will be a very happy and fulfilled camper indeed.
Thanks to Javi for his time and don't forget to pick up SHOOT THAT ONE today!
If you told me when I started this that I'd still be making (irregular) updates to this blog ten years later, I'd have thought you were nuts.
I'm trying to think how much I'd have believed if you told me this blog would eventually lead to some of the best friendships of my life, several jobs, my first manager, my first pitch, and professional connections beyond anything I would have achieved on my own. It all probably would have sounded pretty good then.
It's funny to look at the last ten years with that perspective. I've come a long way, but with so many goals still unfulfilled, it's easy to miss and appreciate so many other professional milestones. I've come tantalizingly close to some of the others - my first script assignment, chief among them - and sometimes it's easy to get lost in the misses rather than appreciating the hits.
That's good general advice for all of you. You don't have to have a blog in order to take stock of how far you've come on your journey.
Ten years ago I thought I was ready to break in. Now I look at some of what I wrote then and cringe at how much better it could be if I wrote it today. Then I reflect on how I'd probably never write something like that today because I've grown beyond the subject matter itself. Five years from now, I'll probably look back at my latest scripts today and go, "Ugh."
That is EXACTLY the way it should be.
Ten years ago I couldn't have imagined the ways that this blog and especially Twitter would open a line of communication between me and once-untouchable professionals, as well as give me insight into other struggling amateurs. I already knew you could learn a lot from bad scripts - I just didn't realize how much you could learn from bad script WRITERS.
The Hack sees no room for improvement. They value quantity over quality. If you offered to read something of theirs, they'd present you with ten scripts - unable to choose a sample from that pile because they're ALL good. The Hack is terrible at accepting notes. They seek affirmation of their brilliance, not mentorship. Introspection is not something they're capable of.
The Hack cultivates access but not relationships. To them, the people they know in the business are resources to be exploited, not emotional touchstones to be maintained. When they meet you, their first thought is, "What can you do for me and why are you not already doing it?" They will never see past themselves and their own goals. Every achievement someone else gets is something that they feel entitled to.
I've seen the Hack so many times in the last decade. They're the person who won't take no for an answer when you decline to read their script, the Jekyll and Hyde who go from praising your blog or Twitter as genius, to saying "What the fuck do you know anyway?" the moment you offer a critical thought.
There's a Hack inside each of us and your eventual success will depend on how good you are at resisting its impulses. This isn't limited to just the poor social skills of a Hack, but also their ability to separate criticism of the work from personal criticism. One thing putting yourself out there on a blog does is that it makes you vulnerable to criticism. Every day you're putting something out into the world and there's a chance it'll make you look stupid.
That's the Fear. To be a good writer, you have to overcome the Fear. You cannot self-censor out of fear of someone not liking something. There's a moment in ED WOOD where the eponymous is told that his film is the worst that someone has ever seen. Without missing a beat, he cheerfully responds, "Well, my next one will be better."
To be a good writer, you need that attitude while also NOT being dismissive of criticism. "My next one will be better." And it will be better only if you MAKE it better. Seek out reaction. Learn from it. Adapt. Every reaction is a valid reaction. No one's making you respond to every critique. I've ignore entire write-ups that my friends have given me on scripts because I've felt they came at the writing from the wrong angle. Despite that, my blood pressure didn't race as I heard any of these "It's not for me" speeches.
If someone's telling you something doesn't work, your impulse is going to be to stop the flow of criticism. Resist that impulse. Keep asking questions: "Why didn't it work? What specifically provoked this reaction? Do you know what specifically provoked you?" Dig into the reactions. It's as close as you'll get to an unbiased read.
This isn't the only lesson of the last ten years, but it's an important one - you've gotta grow beyond your pond. Take chances. Write something that scares you. Ignore the voice in your head that says you'll make a fool of yourself writing a particular script and just write it. You can't know the confines of your comfort zone until you've actively pushed against it.
Sure, know the craft. Read everything you can about the three act structure. Be aware of the tropes inherent to the genre you're writing in and see which you can ignore, which you can use and which you want to subvert. The last month's sampler platter of writing is entirely made up of insight that can help you. Filling your head with the nonsense and insight of others is only part of it, though.
And know yourself. You have to understand the machine you're operating to get those words on the page. I leveled up numerous times in the last ten years, but the one that really left an impression was my 16 Great TV Shows series. With age and insight, I was better able to see why specific shows fed my imagination the way they did. Without the pressure to pump out new content, I might never have done something like that.
I can't really say what the next ten years hold. Looking back demonstrated to me I'd lost the zest for quick, basic tips. I enjoy doing the deeper dives, talking about what a film or a TV show means to me. If nothing else, it often makes for more interesting conversation than debating if sluglines should be bolded and how to use "we see." Engaging the substance of the work is so much more rewarding. Taking an unusual point of view, as I did with MICHAEL F-ING BAY, and exploring it fully was a similarly high-risk, high-return experiment.
I've always said I didn't want this blog to become so consuming that it was impeding my work as a writer. I'm not here to be a blogger, I'm here to be a TV and film writer. For a long time, my mistake was thinking that there was a clear line of demarcation between the two. "Bitter" gave this writer access to people he'd never have met otherwise. It allowed me to befriend several professional writers and other non-pros at about my level and led to numerous instances of them evaluating my work. It raised the bar for me, being out in a much larger pond. "Bitter" taught me as much about my own work and he hopefully taught you about yours.
So thank all of you. Thank you for coming back here for ten years. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you to those who took a chance on me, as a writer, a client, an employee. I had two hopes when I started this blog: that I'd be able to help other developing writers and that I might build my own calling card. On my better days, I'd like to think I've achieved both. Thank you, Bitter. And thank you all.
While I was working on a new TV pilot, I did something that really should be required for anyone doing the same - I reviewed the pilots of some of my favorite shows, as well as some shows with similar genres as the one I was writing.
You shouldn't just passively watch these introductory episodes. You study them - observe how they establish characters and plotlines. Take note of how efficiently a character is established in their first scene. Scrutinize how scenes are written to showcase multiple dynamics at once, all while advancing the story and establishing a complete world.
Pilots are some of the hardest things to write. They're full of exposition, but shouldn't FEEL expository. There's limited space to establish seven or eight characters to a strong enough degree that the audience feels a connection with them AND they have to tell a compelling story while providing a model that shows this world can sustain dozens more stories in the same location with the same people.
There are a thousand ways a well-intentioned pilot can go bad. Just look at the pilots that made it on-air and marvel that there were probably six times as many that didn't get to that stage.
But a great pilot? It's like watching a goddamn symphony.
So for several weeks, I did live-tweet breakdowns of classic pilot eps, covering several different genres and styles. While I watched each ep, I broke down scene-by-scene what was going on, how it served a function in the pilot and highlighted writing techniques that it's useful to know. After the fact, I archived these live-tweets on the blog, converting them into an easier to read paragraph form.
I did my best to make sure these made sense even if you didn't have the show on a TV in front of you. Take a look at these six livetweets.
I continued my introspective streak with a series doing something I've wanted to do ever since I started the blog - take the reader through my process of developing, breaking and writing a script. The challenge I faced was that I didn't want to do that with anything I was actually going to put out there under my name and it seemed to draining to invest all that time into a script written specifically to be thrown away.
A few years ago I briefly considered writing about how to break a spec episode. That at least would slightly mitigate the intellectual property issue, as stealing a spec script would be useless unless the thief intended to pass it off as their own. Then, last year I hit on a way that seemed likely to bear results.
I made an idle joke about how Season 3 of 13 REASONS WHY should take its cues from the short-lived AWAKE, where a detective found himself shifting between two worlds, one where his son survived a car accident that killed his wife, and another with the victim and survivor reversed. On a lark, I tweeted this pitch.
When I was writing that piece on @dylanminnette, I was reminded he was on the excellent AWAKE which would have been PERFECT for the streaming era. Maybe next season of #13ReasonsWhy can follow 2 timelines: one where Hannah lived and one where she died.
Yet this idea stuck with me more than many of my other one-off jokes. Maybe it was the fact I had just come off writing a legitimate spec episode of the show and was already geared up to be inside the heads of these characters and the rhythm of the show. Or maybe I was just bored and had enough time for my mind to ponder, "Hey, what if I really DID go through with this.
I just was stuck on this image of Clay waking up and Hannah lying beside him. He thinks he's losing his mind until he reaches out to touch her. That's when he confirms she's not only solid, but she still bears the scars on her wrists from her suicide attempt.
That image stuck with me - the visual tell of "She slashed her wrists, everything you know about her happened... but she survived it in this timeline." It stuck with me long enough to ponder the Butterfly Effect of Hannah surviving. That thought exercise more or less led me to the conclusion that there was an interesting story to tell here.
And since this was useless as an original spec for obvious reasons, or as a spec episode for any kind of contest (since this kind of crossover, impossibly out-of-continuity spec is forbidden by most), I'd finally found an idea that I was excited about exploring and was useless enough to become a featured blog series.
Of course, me being me, I went a little overboard. I reasoned that for this episode to truly feel like the first episode of a season, I should have some idea what the overall shape of that season would look like. That way, the first chapter would feel authentic. I started with just a few broadstrokes and bulletpoints, just enough to give a sense of what the running storylines in both timelines would be.
But why not go further? As an intellectual exercise, I started sorting those into 13 chapters, refining the story into an overall three-act structure that somewhat recalled how 13 REASONS WHY broke its story in the first season.
And if I'd come that far, why not flesh it out just a little bit for a few of those episodes? And so bullet points became paragraphs.
Yeah, uh, I kinda broke the whole season. But that's MY craziness. You don't HAVE to do that. My process on this was that it helped to know the ending in order to tell Chapter One. And no, this isn't all prelude to drop an entire season of spec episodes on you. I'm crazy but I'm not insane.
I'll admit, after several friends and strangers all came back to me with reactions in the vein of: "This feels like the show. I wish this WAS what they were doing for season three!" I pondered the viability of assembling a few more like-minded writers and writing an entire spec season. That last about ten seconds, but I still pondered it.
You can download the script here. I'm very flattered by the positive reactions from people, particularly those familiar with the show who felt I nailed the characters' voices.
Spec episodes are a particular kind of writing, some might even call it a lost art. There are showrunners and reps who are only interested in reading original material. I've also talked to a number of showrunners and high-level writers who think that it's an invaluable skill for new writers to practice mimicking the voice of another writer because that's what the job requires when on staff for a TV show. That's all the convincing I need to practice this end of the craft at least once a year.
If you're interested in my process, make your way through this 10-part series.
As I ran out of topics to explore in screenwriting, I unconsciously started refocusing the blog as a look inward at myself and the kind of writer I am. I suppose that's not a particularly shocking direction for any blog to take, but the early life of the blog didn't have much introspection. There was plenty about my experiences, but little that truly looked deeper.
As an exercise, I tried to compile the most compact list of TV shows that made an impact on me as a writer. To keep it from just becoming a list of favorite shows, I applied the criteria that for a show to make it on the list, it had to have blown my mind or completely changed my way of thinking about a particular kind of show, or television itself. This meant many great shows were left aside, but it resulted in a list that more plainly demonstrated to me what my influences were and what I should be writing towards.
If you're a writer who dreams of working in TV, I highly recommend figuring out your own list like this. It reminds you of the things you responded to when you were younger, and for me it was something of a compass, showing me where I should go.
I really enjoyed reliving how and why each of these shows made such an impact on me, and it felt more rewarding to talk about something personal beyond just venting about bad things I've seen. This is the kind of project worth doing, because it's one that only YOU can do.
You might be wondering, "What would possess someone to do something like this?" Well, fortunately, I was invited to write a column for Film School rejects about why I wrote the book in the first place.
The real genesis of the book came Summer 2014, when I saw a lot of people on Twitter talking about going to see the latest Transformers film despite being certain it was terrible. (That’s somewhat amusing when contrasted with the latest Ghostbusters conversation, where you can get into a fight with a Ghost-Bro who hasn’t seen the film and STILL is certain it’s terrible.) Unsurprisingly, these people walked out of the film with their assumptions confirmed and somewhat disingenuously acted shocked at how much they disliked it.
I won’t say I felt bad for Bay, but I briefly considered that perhaps his audience was seeing in his films what they wanted to see. So as an experiment, I resolved to view Transformers: Age of Extinction with not only an open mind, but one that gave him the same benefit of the doubt that Hitchcock and Scorsese are afforded when their films are dissected in film school.
Self-publishing has made it almost too easy to write a book. Even though I'd toyed with a couple book ideas before this one, you only get to make one debut and I didn't want to put something out there until I had something interesting to say. Though the book never became the huge best-seller I dreamed it might be, I don't regret a minute I spent working on it.
The only downside of the book is that it set the bar pretty high as far as coming up with a "book-worthy" idea. I don't have any interest in repeating the Michael Bay thesis on another filmmaker and if I ever do write another book as The Bitter Script Reader, I want it to be something memorable and the kind of thing no one else would write.
So yes, if you were holding out on me doing a greatest hits kind of book, featuring the best of my blog posts, I'm going to have to disappoint you. I just don't see the appeal in being just another screenwriting advice book out there. Maybe some day I'll compile all my interview transcripts into a book, or do a new book of interviews, though.
The original announcement of the book can be found here. All related MICHAEL F-ING BAY posts can be found here.
Why not check out the appearances from my "media tour?"