I was alerted by a tweet from screenwriter Terry Cafolla (@terrycafolla) to this excellent 54 minute roundtable discussion featuring US TV drama writers \ show-runners.
Aaron Sorkin (The Newsroom)
Alex Gansa, (Homeland)
D.B. Weiss (Game of Thrones),
Beau Willimon (House of Cards),
Kevin Williamson (The Following),
Matthew Weiner (Mad Men).
Various things come across from this fascinating discussion with some of the most successful writer \ show-runners in US TV drama – for instance what a brutal world it is – even these guys seem to live in fear for their jobs, which should be some consolation to us lesser mortals.
Here are a few quotes and observations from the discussion. Mind you, these excerpts are really only the tip of the iceberg – I recommend you have a look at this yourself. It’s both instructive and inspiring.
THE QUESTION OF VIOLENCE IN TV DRAMA
Aaron Sorkin – ‘Hollywood’s influence on the culture – so many people…especially on the right want to restore America to this thing it never was…didn’t we create this myth as well as glamorising violence?’
Matthew Weiner: ‘…strange to me how high a tolerance people have to violence…the joke is that you can show somebody cutting off a breast but you can’t show a baby breast-feeding…people have an appetite for viscera that I don’t remember.’
Beau Willimon: ‘you kill an animal and you do it off-screen and people flip out…Violence in the real world is awful to witness… sometimes death is sanitised on TV drama’
AS: ‘A real injury on a basketball court…people couldn’t look at it…so how come they can see it fictionalised?…a veil between your experience of it and reality.’
DB Weiss: ‘you can go on the internet now and spend the rest of the day and watch real decapitations…at least in drama and comedy there’s thought, narrative, framing…the only responsibility is telling a good story.’
MW: ‘You never know what a disturbed person will latch onto…it could be anything…American culture is a violent culture…we are all fascinated with violence…what are the extraordinary circumstances under which regular people are capable of violence?…all of that is drama…it’s human experience…there is always the threat of violence where there’s human inter-action’.
Alex Gansa: ‘We often engender the conversation in the public culture about these issues… ‘24’ became this lightening rod for the debate about torture…that’s a great thing…obligation to raise issues.’
DEALING WITH CHANGE AS SHOWRUNNERS
AS: ‘steep learning curve doing any show…you develop a shorthand…to make it incrementally better every season you do need continuity’
MW: ‘when a show starts to work there is a mystery about why it’s working…part of the reason The Sopranos was as good as it was, was because David Chase was there the whole time…it was very personal to him…inspired by his energy and his focus…but anyone who thinks they’re not replaceable is crazy.’
AS: ‘I left the West Wing after the 4th season, it ran for 7 seasons. After I left, Larry David said to me, ‘Under no circumstances can you ever watch the show again…either it’s going to be great and you’re going to be miserable or it’s going to be less than great and you’re going to be miserable…I watched less than 30 secs of the first ep I hadn’t written…it was like watching someone else making out with my girlfriend…it was so difficult to watch.’
AG: ‘I can assure you when you get fired from a job you feel the same way…you just don’t watch it after you’re ‘let go’.
MOST SURPRISING \ DIFFICULT PART OF THE JOB?
BW: ‘the most difficult thing… the sheer titanic size of the effort…it’s a form of insanity…the equivalent of making 7 movies in one year…and for some folks twice that. The blessing and curse of that – there’s a certain speed you have no choice over – you have to create 800 pages or more, there are dates when it’s going to be shot that are fairly inflexible, so you have to rely on instincts a lot which liberates you at times from self-doubt and self-loathing because you can’t luxuriate in that…the downside is you make mistakes. Having now been through the gauntlet of series one, all I see is the mistakes…it’s just fucking exhausting’
MW: There’s a train coming at you and your instinct is to get out of the way and you really can’t.’
AS: ‘The schedule is ferocious and exhausting…I love the immediacy of it, I love working with the same group of people every week, I love that we’re telling a big story, kind of chapter by chapter. But the part that is really tough is that when you’re not writing well – and for me that’s more often than not – is that you have hard deadlines. When you’re not writing well you have to write anyway….then show it to millions of people…so there’s stage fright that goes along with this too.’
BW: ‘One of the coolest things is being able to view what is going on in front of the camera and adapt down the line…’
MW: ‘For a writer working in this medium, knowing that his stuff is going to get shot – that is a luxury I will never get used to.’
Kevin Williamson: ‘One of the things – I write a script and only upon writing do I realise exactly what it doesn’t need to be and then you throw it out and start over again and then you’re shooting it the next day…that’s the panic of being a show-runner.’
MW: ‘I can’t even imagine the psychosis I had the first year of the show.’
There’s also a great section about the process of adaptation – concentrating particularly on GAME OF THRONES and HOUSE OF CARDS.
From about 40 mins onwards there’s a fascinating insight into the politics and processes of the writers room. Aaron Sorkin’s admission that the writers he employs are generally young and inexperienced – and do very little of the actual writing – is particularly interesting.
AS: ‘When you staff up with 7 or 8 new writers at the start of a season, if by the middle of the season three of them are valuable to you, that’s a good haul. You’re going to hang onto those three people for the rest of your life if you can.’
AS: ‘We start shooting an episode the week after next that I haven’t started writing yet – and it’s a whole year of that. A whole year of that constant feeling you once had of having a term paper due. And when the script is finished you’re happy for two minutes before all it means is you haven’t started the next one.’
MW: ‘It’s a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie.’
QUESTION OF RESEARCH \ TOPICALITY
AG: ‘Before every season of Homeland I take an annual pilgrimage to Washington DC to sit down with various current and retired CIA employees…you have to be curious about what’s going on in the world.’
For an alternative, writer’s POV of the 2nd weekend of this year’s Channel 4 screenwriting course, can I point you in the direction of this blog by the excellent DAVE SCULLION –
…and also this, his account of the 4screenwriting drinks evening that followed. There’s a lot of really interesting stuff here about the importance, for screenwriters, of NETWORKING, of making contacts, and learning to ENJOY this process –
…which is something we cover in some depth in the 2nd day of our ‘Two Phils’ screenwriting course on July 13-14.
and here –
Until next week,
All the best
June 21st 2013