Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Dirty Little Secrets - Scandal, Episode 2

I had intended to post on a regular basis, but life has a way of intervening that actually allows for more reflection and aids in the learning process.  While my original intention was to come to grips with how a moral premise creates character and drives story, I have become much more fascinated with the structure of how characters and storylines are introduced, developed and interwoven within an episode, a season and over several seasons… all the while maintaining an eye on that elusive morale premise.  With its references to “gladiators in suits” and Olivia Pope being the ultimate gladiator who wears the “white hat,” we may be lead to believe that Scandal is a morality tale in which the good guys always win.  However, with such a complex television series as Scandal, I don’t believe this is the case… and since I have hindsight (having watched the entire four seasons, I know that the “good guys” have not always behaved in exemplary fashion).

Lajos Egri presents the morale premise as a somewhat simple proposition, e.g. “Intelligence conquers superstition.” [Egri, 1946, p.6]  A more contemporary proponent of the morale premise, Dr. Stanley Williams, presents the morale premise as a double-barreled equation:  [Vice] leads to [defeat], but [Virtue] leads to [success]. [Williams, 2006, p.61].  In my analysis of the season pilot, I hypothesized that the premise is “A person should be allowed to be themselves and love openly, because such secrets lead to scandals.”  Extrapolated into Dr. William’s format, it might read as, “Deceit leads to scandal, truth leads to respectability.”

Without further ado, let’s see how our characters are doing.  We last left Pope Associates with a new client, Amanda Tanner, the intern who claimed she had an affair with the president.  We open Episode 2, “Dirty Little Secrets” with a close-up on Olivia’s face.  Today the president will announce his Supreme Court nominee, the subtext of which is his work on the “Right to Privacy” statues.  A woman compliments Olivia, “You did a nice job getting him elected.”  While on the face of it, this is an innocent compliment, it contains subtext and hints of things to come.  The woman also asks Olivia why she left the White House.  “Nobody leaves the West Wing.”  The woman is the new client who is waiting with Olivia while Abbey, Harrison and Huck retrieve items from the woman’s house, with Stephen on watch outside.  When the DA drives by, Stephen announces, “You have ten minutes.”  Abbey and Harrison hustle to gather items as Huck wipes computer's hard drive clean.

Cut to Pope Associates’ office where the DA delivers a speech about how he’s the upholder of the law, he’s the good guy, ending with, “I wear the white hat.” Olivia responds, “My white hat is bigger than yours.”  Olivia outlines the consequences and, since he doesn’t have a warrant, the DA is obliged to leave, just as the team exits the other elevator carrying their box of illicit goodies.  Remember how Olivia delivered a box to save the day in episode one?  The ever-curious Quinn, still trying to learn the rules of the game, introduces herself and it’s revealed that the woman is “DC’s finest madam.”  So, like episode one, we open with a surprise.

Following the titles, Cyrus tells the President that Olivia is representing Amanda Tanner and we hear one of Cyrus’ catch phrases, “I’m on your side.”

A montage of the client’s case ensues and, as in episode one, the clue to solving the case is something the client says; in this instance, it’s “did you get the photo albums?”

At the White House, Olivia learns her clearance is revoked.  The VP’s chief of staff, Billy, comes to her rescue and she gains access.  Meanwhile, a new problem arises in the form of a reporter sniffing around Amanda at the hospital.  Olivia tells Quinn that under no circumstances is she to let Amanda out of her sight.  Inside the White House, Olivia advises Cyrus that the Supreme Court nominee is on the Madam’s list of clients.  Billy is keen to move forward (foreshadowing his subversive character) but Olivia points out, “dirty little secrets have a way of coming out, don’t they Cyrus?”  As Olivia leaves the White House, she passes a room in which the President is giving a press conference.  Their eyes meet.  Olivia keeps walking.

Back at the office, the DA arrives with a warrant, “Where’s my Madam?”  As cops handcuff the Madam, Olivia tells the DA that her client had better be provided suitable accommodations.  The DA is about to poke Olivia to make his point, when Huck steps in, “Do not touch her.”  This is the beginning of the extent to which we will see Huck go for Olivia.  Meanwhile, we have a new problem:  Amanda is gone from the hospital.  We are at the 17-minute mark.

The Supreme Court nominee shows up with Billy at Olivia’s office and gives a speech about his dedication to the law, reiterating the DA’s speech from earlier.  Billy begs Olivia to not ruin the man’s reputation.  Olivia asks the judge to withdraw, explains that his name is on the Madam’s list.

At the police station, Stephen tells the Madam that she has to give up the list if she doesn’t want to go to prison; goes on to outline living with choices, being able to spend time with her grandchildren.  The Madam tells about her life as a single mom, how her daughter hasn’t spoken to her since she found out what she did for a living, hasn’t seen her grandchildren; she knows about “living with choices.” The Madam concludes with “those men have grandchildren too.” This seems to sum up this episode’s moral dilemma - the choices and sacrifices one must make in life.  So, while this is not the moral premise of the show, it’s a moral dilemma akin to what we saw in episode one.

Back at the White House, the Amanda Taylor problem escalates in the form of two sentences in a blog post, which Cyrus reminds the President is how Watergate began.  Mellie enters on cue (half-way through the show) and asks how the nomination is progressing, indicating that Mellie has an active interest in politics and the presidency.

Quinn arrives at the office and announces that she screwed it up.  She needs Huck to help her trace Amanda. Huck asks if she did the obvious – “Did you try her home?” Olivia enters, the DA right behind her with a subpoena for the Madam’s list of clients.

Harrison and Abbey approach a former prostitute, now mother with her kid, in the park, to ask questions about the prostitute with whom the judge had relations.

At Amanda’s apartment, Olivia is forced to admit that Amanda told the truth about the president then lays out the consequences of what will happen to Amanda if she continues her course of action, i.e. scandal.  Amanda closes the door.  Olivia tells Quinn to write a note on her card and slip it under the door, “She’ll be calling you.”  “How do you know?”  “I’m good at my job.”

At the office, Abbey is casting aspersions on Stephen and asking why such a man would sleep with a prostitute.  Olivia states, “We don’t judge.”

At the entrance to the White House, Olivia is back on the approved list as requested by the President.  She delivers a dozen red devil muffins to the security guard, further evidence that Olivia cares for people; she’s a nice person.  Olivia confronts the judge’s wife, who is indeed a former prostitute who was on her first date when she was stood up and, instead, met the judge.  She maintained the lie of dating him to protect herself with the Madam, while the judge lived on in ignorance.  Across the room, the President and Olivia lock eyes.  A minute later she reminds him, “I don’t work for you.”  The President retorts, “Love is stronger than mistakes,” which is definitely a theme of the show as we shall see!  They touch hands.  Olivia leaves.

With seven minutes left in the show, we reach the screenwriter’s “All is Lost” moment. [Snyder, 2005, p.86]  At this point, our heroine, Olivia, gets an idea.  The ‘johns’ on the list are among DC’s most powerful men.  The team goes to work, resulting in all the ‘johns’ convening in Pope Associates’ conference room.  They will exert their influence to quash the story; case solved. 

At the White House, the President is pleasantly intoxicated discussing with Cyrus how Olivia saved the day.  He announces, “Liv is the love of my life.”  Cyrus, “I’m on your side.”

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Quinn tells Amanda how Olivia saved her, "I was alone, I was in trouble. I would have given anything to have someone by my side and Olivia Pope... she wears the white hat."  Back at the office, we have a new problem when Gideon shows up and finds Quinn, Olivia and Amanda together.  Now he has a story.


While the problems and their escalation are not hitting the mark to the exact second (as compared show by show), they are following a pattern, which appears very much like that laid out by Ellen Sander in the TV Writer’s Workbook, elegantly described as:
Little Uh Oh!
The Big Uh Ohhh!
Oh No!
The Twist-a-Roo

This is the second show in which Olivia’s client’s problem mirrors her own as it relates to her relationship with the President.  Furthermore, there isn’t any dialogue that doesn’t contain subtext, reveal character, or advance the story and I can see that I will have to look beyond a moral premise to identify story lines, A, B, C and more, as well as look at how the interaction between characters affect and influence the story.  The best is yet to come!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The First In a Series...

Unlike screenplays, for which any number of books exists on the subject of structure, there is no such structural paradigm for one-hour television dramas. The purpose of my analysis, therefore, is to understand how a dramatic television series can be structured by examining one particular show, with the goal of understanding how storylines are introduced, developed and interwoven within the framework of an episode and over a season. I have chosen Scandal because it’s a regular broadcast television show (ABC) with excellent writing and high production values equal to a cable television series. I also respect that the show runner, Shonda Rhimes, is a woman in a predominantly male business. Also, because it’s on broadcast television, there is no profanity or nudity or any other shock factors that may contribute to the popularity of certain cable shows, certainly among my favorites such as House of Lies, True Blood, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Californication. It’s my conclusion, then, that the popularity of Scandal, now in its fourth season, can be attributed to its story, with kudos, of course, to casting, acting, directing, etc.

Having conducted a study over a number of years, Dr. Stanley Williams, in his book The Moral Premise, details how a moral premise is vital for the success of a film. In other words, story alone is not enough to succeed. I am curious to see whether this holds true for television and, as such, aim to identify the moral premise of Scandal and to see how it is upheld within each show and over a season. Since broadcast television is also more vulnerable to viewing statistics than cable TV, I am also interested to see whether there’s a correlation between the show’s popularity and its adherence to its premise. Does a show’s audience drop off when its viewers don’t get what they expected to tune into? And, vice versa, does fulfilling audience expectation boost viewership. This might prove to be a bit of a challenge, but with all the analyses and reporting available on the Internet I hope to prevail. So, without further ado!

Scandal Pilot: Sweet Baby – Storyline & Structure 

The opening scene is fast paced, fast-talking, and appears that two people are meeting on a blind date in a crowded bar. The quick cuts and directing technique contribute to a sense of confusion and intrigue. We want to know what is going on, especially since one of the characters is as in the dark as we are. In The Moral Premise, Stanley Williams refers to this as suturing, the technique of creating identification with the audience. The character Quinn is a baby-faced young woman, a nice person, we learn, because her friend set up the date and she wouldn’t be rude enough to stand someone up. Harrison, the handsome, African American in the expensive suit, who’s been doing all the fast talking countering her ‘I can’t stays’ announces that it’s not a date. It’s a job interview. In fact, it’s not even that because Quinn is already hired. Quinn insists she didn’t apply for a job. Harrison continues to exemplify his character’s art of persuasion, and when he mentions that the job is with Olivia Pope & Associates, Quinn is suddenly interested. Hence, it’s established that people, or at least these two people, are in awe of Olivia Pope, and Quinn wants the job; she too wants to be “a gladiator in a suit.” The scene lasts approximately one minute.

Cut to: A man and a woman in a freight elevator. Stephen, “We’re going to get killed.” The stunning African American woman in a white trench coat is Olivia Pope. She is cool, collected and white clothing is her trademark. In fact, we will see that when her own morality is in doubt, the clothes she wears will be gray. Right now, her focus is on convincing Stephen that he should propose to his girlfriend, Georgia. Stephen’s concern is how they’re going to get out alive, especially since they don’t have the money they promised to deliver – they’re three million dollars short. Olivia and Stephen walk out of the elevator into an empty high-rise. This is a nice choice that amplifies the isolation and sense of danger while minimizing the production budget for an additional set. Olivia hands over the money in exchange for a cardboard box and tells the Ukranian men why they’re going to accept the financial short fall and do exactly as she says. Olivia walks out, followed by Stephen, who says, “I love this job.” The scene lasts a minute.

The titles conclude with: Written by Shonda Rhimes.

Harrison leads Quinn through the lavish offices of Olivia Pope & Associates, and in short shrift introduces the team: Huck, the tech guy, ex-CIA; Abby the investigator and Stephen the litigator; and then Olivia, who opens the cardboard box to reveal its precious contents. Surprise! It’s a baby returned to its parents; another satisfied client. And while Olivia reveals her lack of domesticity, she also reveals her soft underpinning. The firm’s purpose is then explained to Quinn – although they’re lawyers, it’s not a law firm; they manage crises, save reputations. Of note, is that the dialogue continues to be fast and slick. If you’re not listening carefully, you never know what you might miss. This may be one of the attractions of this show – it’s not the boob tube any more.

Five minutes into the show and a new problem arrives in the form of Sully St. James, a war hero, who walks in covered with the blood of his murdered girlfriend. We go to commercial. Originally, I had identified this as the end of the first act, but since television characters are revealed in relation to one another and gain depth rather than undergo a change, I will instead call this a ‘hook’ assuming that when we go to commercial viewers will stick around to see what happens.

Abby, Stephen and Huck give their opinions on why they shouldn’t take on the new client. Olivia overrules them saying that her gut tells her everything she needs to know. They take on Sully’s case and the team kicks into gear. They initiate their process: interview the client and watch him to decide who he is. Olivia tells Sully that she sets the rules and warns him, “Do not lie.”

The show uses a series of still SHOTS of Washington DC accompanied by the sound effects of an old-fashioned camera SNAPPING as a device to ‘get across town’, thus maintaining story momentum while reducing production costs. This takes Olivia to the home of David Rosen, the Assistant U.S. Attorney. He’s not too thrilled about being awoken in the middle of the night, but it’s clear that the two have history and mutual respect, even if they’re not exactly friends. Olivia asks for 48 hours before he arrests her client, the war hero. After some back and forth, she outlines the consequences of not following her demands. He accedes and she has a deadline of 24 hours. The race is on (12+/- minute mark) and the team goes into action: Abby at the crime scene; Stephen at the morgue; Harrison explaining to Quinn that their goal is to fix the problem, not solve the crime – they are “gladiators in suits.” Olivia receives a phone call and walks out. While it’s too tedious to recount each scene in which Olivia walks in and/or walks out in this blog, it is one of the items that Ellen Sandler recommends analyzing in The TV Writer’s Workbook and of which I keep note in my Excel spreadsheet. As she leaves the office, she again admonishes Stephen to propose, “It’s the normal thing to do.” When it’s pointed out that she never dates, Olivia retorts, “I’m not normal.”

In the following montage we see the characters exhibit their personalities/talents to handle the situation i.e. Abby, the bitch, threatens the detective at the crime scene in order to get photographs while Stephen, the ladies man, uses his charms at the morgue to get an expedited examiner’s report. What makes these characters complex is that we will see Abby’s romantic soft spot and Stephen’s insecurity when it coms to making a life-long commitment.

Olivia meets with a new character in the park. This is Cyrus Beene, a balding middle-aged man with watery blue eyes that can ignite fires when his wrath is awoken. He is the White House Chief of Staff, there to ask Olivia for a favor; there’s a problem that only she can fix. Olivia refuses, “I don’t work for him any more.” We learn that ‘him’ is the President of the United States. Olivia is turning down the president… wow!

Two scenes later, Olivia arrives at Camp David. Before she meets the president, she again meets with Cyrus who tells her that ‘things’ are not like they were during the election; the president and first lady’s marriage is stronger than ever. Then we meet the first lady, Mellie, who asks Olivia if she’s dating. Next, Olivia is walking with Fitz, the president; Cyrus, and two secret service men. Olivia is advised of the problem: an intern is claiming she had sex with the president. The president says that he would never do something like that; he “loves only one woman.” Olivia concedes, “I’ll handle it. Consider it handled.” This is Olivia’s catch phrase, (along with ‘trusting her gut’) one of the items that I will monitor along with Harrison’s catch phrase, “gladiators in suits.” We’ve yet to see what phrases are particular to the other characters. Meanwhile, Cyrus is thrilled that, “the team is back together again,” revealing that this may be his raison d’etre.

Accompanied by Quinn as a witness, Olivia approaches Amanda, the intern, in the park and presents her with the facts and the inevitable consequences if she pursues her planned course of action. Quinn is horrified. As the season progresses, Quinn is integrated with the team and we forget about her mysterious beginnings, but they will return to close the last episode of the season in a shocking way. As Olivia walks away, she makes a call, “It’s handled” and back at the office Quinn is in the bathroom crying. Huck tells her, “No crying.” Crying isn’t allowed. And while he’s telling Quinn, “We all have a story. You have to believe that your life has meaning,” we get the sense that this is Huck’s motivation – to find the meaning of his life. He concludes with “Everyone in this office needs fixing,” but he doesn’t do it in a harsh way. He is clearly a deep and damaged soul and it is this scene that starts the relationship between Huck and Quinn that will build and bond them.

The accusations against the president hit the news. On television, the president and Cyrus are walking across the White House lawn. Olivia calls Cyrus, who hands the phone to the president. Olivia asks him pointedly, did you buy Amanda that dog? He denies it. She asks him to turn his head slightly so that she can look into his eyes. This is a variation on what will be many looks they share privately across crowded rooms. Olivia believes him.

Olivia presents a tray of diamond rings for Stephen to pick from. She has also made dinner reservations for the event.

Amanda shows up at Olivia’s office, followed by David Rosen to arrest Sully. Olivia sends Amanda away; makes Rosen wait for the remaining 40 minutes she has allotted. Abby and Stephen are trying to find an alibi for Sully. They return triumphant. They have camera footage from a bank that caught Sully on tape greeting his lover outside a bar. Sully refuses to use the alibi; he is a hero, he respects the uniform, he cannot be gay. Harrison, Abby, Stephen and Olivia follow him to the police station. Meanwhile Quinn receives a call. She calls Olivia.

Since it’s after hours, the arraignment won’t be until morning. Olivia leaves the team to convince Sully to do the right thing. Stephen, however, is expected at the restaurant. Abby tells him to go, “to get down on one knee. Girls like that.” So, Abby isn’t quite the bitch we are lead to believe.

At the hospital, Quinn informs Olivia that Amanda tried to commit suicide by slashing her wrists. Quinn also describes Amanda’s ramblings about how the president called her “Sweet baby.” Olivia is visually shocked.

Olivia storms into the Oval Office, “Where is he?” The president appears, with Cyrus asking if this can’t wait since the president has to toast the President of France in ten minutes. That the president, Fitz, chooses Olivia over his duties says a lot. Olivia lets loose accusing him of making a fool of her, how her feelings for him clouded her judgment, made her mistake her gut. She slaps his face. He tells her he love her, kisses her. Cyrus barges in, “I can hear the screaming out there.” Cyrus is shocked, unaware of the relationship between the president and Olivia. Olivia storms out.

At the restaurant, Stephen is hiding in the coat closet when Olivia appears. She convinces him that he must propose, it’s the right thing; she knows it in her gut. Stephen approaches Georgia sitting at a table in the restaurant and gets down on one knee. Olivia sinks back into the coat closet, wipes a tear from her eye.

At the police station, Olivia gives Sully a powerful speech. She saw the tape, she saw them kiss, she knows that Sully loves that man. She knows what it’s like to keep a secret for a long time. “Who you love shouldn’t have to be a secret.” And this, I believe, is the premise of the show: A person should be allowed to be themselves and love openly, because such secrets lead to scandals.

In the end, Sully makes a statement to the press on television announcing that he’s proud to have fought for his country; he’s proud to have been injured for his country; and he’s proud to have been a gay man who fought for his country. Quinn is confused… the killer wasn’t caught. “I thought Olivia was one of the good guys.” Harrison tells her that, “Olivia isn’t one of the good guys. She is the best guy. What are we?” Quinn answers, “Gladiators in suits.”

Cyrus appears. The president wants to see Olivia. The fact that Cyrus never knew about their affair reveals that the president does not, indeed, tell Cyrus everything. This is an important point. Olivia reveals that she has a new client, Amanda.

The show finishes with a close-up on Olivia’s face - another suturing technique.


In this pilot episode Shonda Rhimes has interwoven so much depth and complexity into her characters. She has also created the requisite family necessary for audience identification that makes people want to tune in week after week per Tony Bicât in Creative TV Writing (2007).  Each is unique in their physicality, personality and talents – the backstories will come later.
  • Abby Whelan (Caucasian) is a tall, slim, self-assured, scathing, cynical red-head.
  • Quinn Perkins (Caucasian) is a smart, naïve, slightly-plump people-pleaser brunette.
  • Huck (Hispanic) is a dark horse, gentle-spoken, technical genius, extremely loyal, lost soul.
  • Harrison Wright (African American) is the smooth talking, sharp dressing, legal mind, who plays Olivia’s second in command.
  • Stephen Finch (Caucasian) is tall, smart and “pretty,” and as thus seems almost decorative. He will not appear after the first season.
The environment in which they work, technically is Washington DC, but much of the action takes place in the White House, which is where we have our second family:
  • President Fitzgerald Grant, tall, handsome, authoritative, is believably presidential.
  • First Lady Mellie Grant, a Southern beauty, soft, elegant, conservative, looks the part and her inner intelligence and ambition will be revealed over time.
  • Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene, with his soft eyes, soft body and balding pate, looks like the perfect goffer for the president, but his superior intelligence, unmitigated ambition and surprising personal life will be revealed over time.  
  • David Rosen, the Assistant US Attorney, is the glue between the two camps. His innate sense of truth, righteousness and justice will be tested.  
  • Olivia Pope (African American) is absolute perfection - beautiful, intelligent, decisive, fiercely loyal, beloved and admired by all and has an impeccable reputation and powerful connections. Other than the fact that she was the president’s mistress, she’s beyond reproach. How’s that for an interesting dichotomy?
According to Tony Bicât, it is paramount that the protagonist becomes an ‘enemy’ within their work place, as in the Helen Mirren vehicle Prime Suspect and Luther in which Idris Elba plays detective John Luther. We shall see if and how this comes in to play for Olivia Pope in Scandal.

Another TV trope is the “will they get together?” storyline. This is also at play in Scandal and will be interesting to see how Shonda Rhimes and her team keep the cat and mouse game alive over seasons.


Our protagonist is established as a force to be reckoned with. We are introduced to all the key players. We can see their diverse personalities at work and – this is important – in action, not as talking heads. That everyone seems to be in constant motion adds to the show’s fast pace. The client’s problem is an allegory for what’s going on in the real story which is, in fact, a story of forbidden love between a man and a woman.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Yes, it's a music video but the choice of locations and the subtext and richness that they provide are reminiscent of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Worth multiple viewings.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

TV Just Keeps Getting Better!

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as a pair of New Orleans cops on the trail of a serial killer. HBO's True Detective looks like it will be another home run. Coming in January... I cannot wait!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dead or Alive

The opening sequence to Takashi Miike's violent Yakuza thriller... just because TV still has a way to go before we can have these type of sequences... or does it?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Foundation of Story

For my research project, I am investigating how writers approach premise in story... if indeed they do! I am asking up to 6 questions - based on one's answer to the first.

Here are the questions:

1. When you are creating a story, do you subscribe to Lajos Egris' theory on premise as he explains it in the Art of Dramatic Writing?

2. Do you believe that the premise apples not just to the protagonist and the main storyline, but also to all the principal characters and subplots as well?

3. Do you believe that the premise must be evident in every scene?

4. Do you begin with a premise before you write; or do you start with a plot and find a premise as you write?

5. If you don't subscribe to Egri's theory, do you subscribe to the theory of any of the following 'gurus'? McKee, Vogler, Hauge, Field, Truby, Seger, et al.

6. If you don't use premise as a guiding tool, what do you use to develop character and story?

To complete the survey, go here.

Writers willing to participate in a five-minute interview can email me at lorraine(dot)flett(at)raindance(dot)co(dot)uk with their phone number and best time to be reached.

Please spread the word!

Thank you.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Walking on Alligators

Walking on Alligators, written by Susan Shaughnessy in 1993, is a book of meditations for writers. I love the title and I love the messages it contains. For example,
"The ark was built by amateurs, and the Titanic by the experts. Don't wait for the experts." ~ Murray Cohen
I have a board on Pinterest of the same title. I post quotes there to remind me that I have not chosen an easy path; it is, however, the path I have chosen, which makes walking on a tightrope of barbed wire look easy by comparison.

I have been challenged to create the following learning contract, but in the process have learned that I AM LEARNING, and facing challenges is part of the process, as it is in every creative endeavor.

And, so my fellow students, mentor and tutors, I look forward to walking this path with you and hope that I may extend myself as a balancing pole when needed and trust that you will do the same when I teeter, for there's only one thing I know for sure as I embark on this exciting adventure, I will surely teeter along the way.



Key research question: What Theories, Practices & Tools for Writing Episodic Television Can Be Learned by Following the Principles of Lajos Egri?


PREMISE/ What is the Foundation of Story?

Rationale: In all my years of studying screenwriting, I have never been asked to set forth a premise before writing a script. Teachers have always focused on the hero’s journey, defining the character’s outer wants versus inner needs, conflict, plot and structure, using tools such as the Beat Sheet to create an outline before filling in character, dialogue and action. Yet, Lajos Egri posits that all great drama requires a unifying premise and that premise will dictate character and story. By questioning writers on the subject of premise and how they use it as a tool, I aim to understand how I can put Egri’s theory into practice.

Deliverables: A 4,000 word research report that will synthesize findings conducted through a) a literature review on the subject of writing for television, b) interviews with professional writers on how they use premise to create character and drive story and c) an online questionnaire to quantify those who use premise as a tool and those who do not.

Indicative Reading List:
Aranson, L. (2000) Television Writing; The Ground Rules of Series, Serials and Sitcom. North Ryde, Australia: Australian Film Television and Radio School
Bhaskaran, V. and LeClaire, J. (2010) Online Surveys for Dummies. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing, Inc.
Bicât, T. (2007) Creative TV Writing. Ramsbury, England: The Crowood Press Limited.
Egri, L. (1946) The Art of Dramatic Writing. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Epstein, A. (2006) Crafty TV Writing; Thinking Inside the Box. New York. Henry Holt and Company
Sandler, E. (2007) The TV Writer’s Workbook; A Creative Approach to Television Scripts. New York, NY: Bantam Dell
Tierno, M. (2012) Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters. New York, NY: Hyperion
Vogler, C. (2007) The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions
Williams, S. D. (2006) The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions

Blogs by industry professionals including, but not limited to: Ted Levin, Ellen Sandler, Alex Epstein, Danny Stack.

Industry: Done Deal Professional, Studio System News, Indiewire, Vulture, Shooting People, Screen Daily.


CHARACTER & STORY/ How is Premise Proven - Within An Episode and Over A Season?

Rationale: Unlike a screenplay, which tells a story in a finite amount of time, a television series tells a story in multiple episodes that extend over a season and, hopefully, into multiple seasons. Whereas a script has the tradition of sticking your protagonist up a tree and throwing stones at him/her before the fire brigade arrives to save the day, at which point the audience lets out a uniform sigh of relief, a television series has to keep the emotional rollercoaster rolling week after week, year after year. By practical examination of one show - BBC America's Orphan Black, chosen because it is a sci-fi action drama, which is the genre of my own idea - I hope to understand the intricacies of how a story is structured over multiple episodes and how it adheres to its premise within each episode and over the season, as well as identify what the buttons are that inspire binge watching. This could be interesting to other writers also wishing to understand how to write episodic TV.

Deliverables: A breakdown of each episode, identifying characters’ motivations, plots and subplots, and how each upholds (or otherwise) the premise, written as a blog post for each episode. A Reflective Report that will include a matrix, with the beat sheet of each show, charting how character and plot weave together over a season.

Indicative Reading List:
Atchity, K. and Wong C. (2003) Writing Treatments That Sell: How to Create and Market Your Story Ideas to the Motion Picture and TV Industry. New York: Henry Holt and Company
Corbett, D. (2013) The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film & TV. New York: Penguin Books
Grisanti, J. (2011) TV Writing Took Kit: How to Write a Script that Sells. [Online] Available from: goo.gl/21WJ7
Prigge, S. (2005) Created By: Inside the Minds of TV’s Top Creators. Los Angeles, CA: Silman-James Press
Rabkin, W. (2011) Writing the Pilot. Pasadina, CA: Moon & Sun & Whiskey
Schmidt, V.L. (2001) 45 Master Characters. Blue Ash: Writer’s Digest Books
Wilson, J.M. (1998) Inside Hollywood: A Writer’s Guide to Researching the World of Movies & TV. Blue Ash, OH: Writers’ Digest Books
Zizek, S. (2001) Enjoy your symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and out. London, UK: Psychology Press


THE ADAPTATION/ The Next Steps – Following Premise and Character – Conflict!

Rationale: With the understanding of how premise drives character and story, I will adapt a manuscript to episodic television. By working with an existing story, I won’t be concerned with the creation of characters, world, etc, but will be able to focus on how to tell the story effectively within the framework of episodic TV. Since the story is a Buddhist work, I will need to ensure that within the teachings of each episode there is sufficient conflict to carry the story forward and thus keep the target audience of 13-17 year-olds engaged.

Deliverables: Scripts for an animated, sci-fi TV series, accompanied by a diary documenting the process in the form of a blog and videos. A reflective paper.

Indicative Reading List:
Smith, E.S. (1999) Writing Television Sitcoms. New York, NY: The Berkeley Publishing Company
Stone, A. A. (2007) Movies and the moral adventure of life. Cambridge. MA: MIT Press
Sedita, S. (2005) The Eight Characters of Comedy. Jacksonville, FL: Atides Publishingv Milham, P. (2011) How to Write Comedy Characters. Amazon Digital Services, Inc.


TV PILOT/ Introduce a Central Character and Core Cast, Establish the Show’s World and Create an Episode Template

Rationale: The pilot script is the selling tool for a TV series. By presenting my ideas for a television show to my tutors, mentor and peers and refining them until there’s a winning idea and continuing to develop this idea into a logline, outline, draft, I will learn the stages of development.

- Logline
- Concept Sheet
- Outline
- Draft
- First Revised Draft
- Reflective Report

Indicative Reading List:
Einstein, A. (2011) The World As I See It. San Diego, CA: Book Tree
Geoghegan, J. and Homan, M. (2002) The Bible for Dummies. Indianapolis, IN: John Wiley & Sons
Grant, R. (2013) Writing the Science Fiction Film. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions
Levin, A. (2007) Cloning: A Beginner’s Guide. London, UK: Oneworld Publications
Macy, M. (2009) The Project: The past, present and future of humanity. New York: Eloquent Books


PITCH PACKET/ Achieving the Perfect Pitch

Rationale: In addition to a pilot script, a pitch bible is the standard selling tool for a television series. Writing such a bible will demonstrate that I understand the requirements of the business as well as what it takes to develop an idea. While I understand the challenges of selling a script and the opportunities and resources available to unrepresented/unproduced writers, I don’t know how the system works for television. My research into this area will help in my goal of selling an original TV series. Additionally, as part of my package I want to include strategies for transmedia.

Deliverables: Pitch Bible detailing characters, look + feel, themes and concepts, episode breakdown. Transmedia modules in the form of storyboards, site/story architecture, etc. Case Study Analysis of who’s used Transmedia effectively to extend their prime asset.

Indicative Reading List:

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Robert Rodriguez - Shapeshifter

My hero, Robert Rodriguez, is creating a TV network, not just a series, but a network! And it will be in English for the "under-served" Latino audience. Who would have thought? The man who I have worshipped ever since watching that gun-slinging guitar player step through those swing doors ten years ago.

In the DVD special features for Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which he wrote, produced, shot, directed, edited, and scored, he gives tips for cooking and provides the recipe for Puerco Pibil, one of his go-to recipes he cooks up for the crew. Now, that is what I call a renaissance man.

I have particular fondness for Once Upon a Time in Mexico because it was shot in San Miguel de Allende, where I live half the year. For this reason, I recently screened the film for a friend, and, ten years later, it still holds up. Of course, it's always fun to watch a film in which you can spot the locations that you know and love. The denouement in which Johnny Depp is blindly led by a child takes place on the street two minutes from my apartment. I digress.

Rodriguez has continued to be cool. Check out this short film that he recently made as part of Blackberry’s “Keep Moving” project. With an incomplete short film on hand, he called out to fans to "use your creativity and imagination to help complete" the film. What do you think? Indubitably Rodriguez, right?

And did I mention, he's starting a TV network? Que padre!

Friday, July 5, 2013

My Most Valued Film Book...

For this week's assignment, we're to write about our most valued film book. I thought that would be a snap, since no matter how many books there are on creative writing, the subject boils down to learning the "The Art of Dramatic Writing," (note the word dramatic) which happens to be the title of Lajos Egri's seminal book written in 1946. I have read this book every year for the last 15 years and thought it would be my go-to book for this assignment.

However, as I scan my books on the craft of writing -- shockingly only 50 -- I see Syd Field's The Screenwriter's Workbook, which I found immensely helpful in cracking how to structure and write the dreaded second act. And there, right next to it sits The Film Director's Intuition. Drawn by the word intuition, I flip through the pages to discover that it's heavily dogeared. I immediately want to read this again! This book is dense with fabulous information, inspiring quotes from famous actors and directors, and real script analyses. For my fellow students, here's a link; I highly recommend this book!

On the subject of writing for television (since that's what I intend to learn), I am reading Creative TV Writing by writer/director/producer Tony Bicat. I was thrilled to read in the introduction that, although everyone wants "a hit," nobody knows what is going to be a hit, least of all the producers. Bicat goes on to say that, "the format for this mysterious 'hit' changes." I'm further encouraged by his approach to developing said 'hit', i.e. coolly analyse the shows you admire to see how they are written and constructed in order to establish certain principles of episodic storytelling; with the additional suggestion of writing key scenes from the first and fifth episode to understand the process of episodic drama. That he suggests the fifth episode is interesting... something to consider when I comes to plotting (and filming?) my own series.

I would be highly amiss if I did not mention The Guerilla Film Makers Movie Blueprint. I found this book invaluable when I was producing my feature film, which you can read about here. Reading this book is tantamount to attending film school! Here's a link to the "all-new" American edition.


Jones, C. (2003) The Guerilla Film Makers Movie Blueprint. London: Continunuum
Bicat, T. (2007) Creative TV Writing. Ramsbury: Crowood
Weston, J. (2003) The Film Director's Intuition. Studio City: McNaughton & Gunn, Inc.
Field, S. (1984) The Screenwriter's Workbook. New York: Dell Publishing
Egri, L. (1946) The Art of Dramatic Writing. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Telford, K. (1961) Aristotle's Poetics. Chicago: Gateway

Thursday, June 27, 2013

My Relevant Production Company... ies.

This week my assignment is to blog about a relevant production company. I'm picking three:

Crescendo Productions, helmed by Don Cheadle and which has a first-look deal with Showtime. Don plays Marty Kaan in Showtime's black comedy House of Lies.

Gerard Butler Alan Siegel Entertainment, primarily because Gerard is Scottish and I like him, but secondly because he has (make that had) a deal with James Franco to direct and star in The Garden of Last Days, and James Franco does interesting things such as his current Idiegogo campaign to raise $500K for his Palo Alto Stores. His walking out, and effectively killing the production, may not be cool, but... According to Deadline Hollywood, "Franco’s exit had to do with a disagreement with financier Millennium over the crew he wanted to hire. Basically, Franco put together a few that didn’t have the experience to get approval from the bond company. Millennium wouldn’t approve his choices." Read the story here

Media Rights Capital, producers of House of Cards. Don't need to say much about that Netflix breakout success. On their slate are a number of interesting projects, among them a crime science fiction, The Shining Girls, for which Leonardo CeCaprio will be an executive producer; and a medical drama, Knifeman, to be directed by David Cronenberg.

TV is going to be very interesting to watch as more and more big screen talent moves to smaller screen productions.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Getting Closer... Two Questions.

As a social media consultant, it behooves me to know virtually all social media platforms, which means, often enough, joining up and participating in them. I’ve been a member of Quora for some time, but never really used it. Today I fell in love with Quora!

Someone posted a link with the question, “What is the most important thing you have ever learned from a movie.” I posted the link on Google+ for you all to see. In the thick of it all was the following response:

• How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight? • This is your life and it's ending one minute at a time. • Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing. • It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything. • Losing all hope is freedom. • You are not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis. You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. • The things you own end up owning you. • On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero. • Fuck off with your sofa units and strine green stripe patterns, I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let... lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may. • We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. • We're consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don't concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.

And in the thick of that response is my little nugget, “Our war is a spiritual war; our great depression is our lives.” THAT is what I want to write about… in an entertaining way. After all, nobody tunes in to become depressed; we want entertainment.

So, having identified my overall theme, how do I wrap it up in a proven formula? And, the formula I want to crack is the “will they or won’t they?” concept. It's the basis for Cheers and not until I started talking it over with my buddy, Craig, did I realize the basis for so many other shows from Sex and the City (will Carrie and Big get together?) to The Good Wife (will Alicia get back with her husband; will she get back with her lover?); to Californication (will Hank and Karen get back together, with the subplot will Charlie and Marcy get back together?); to House of Lies (will Marty and his employee get together?) and even Orphan Black (will Sarah get together with the boyfriend of the woman whose life she now inhabits?). And, when they do, how do we act as though it never happened to repeat the “will they or won’t they” question season after season?

In conclusion, two of my questions:
1) How does the “will they or won’t they” concept play out in seemingly completely different storylines/genres?
2) What devices are used to keep the question repeating?

The Elusive Big Question...

My goal is to write a TV series. One of those 22 minute shows that get people addicted, like Californication, House of Lies, and Orphan Black.

Californication and House of Lies are both American productions on Showtime in the genre drama/black comedy. Showtime in fact seems to have perfected its formula, although I have to say the closing of the second season of House of Lies felt forced and inauthentic. Orphan Black is a sci-fi thriller and because it’s a BBC America production I had assumed it was British, but in the show they reference New York (which you never see), and characters appear from Minneapolis in fairly short shrift i.e. not the time it takes to cross the Atlantic. The characters’ accents, though location neutral, are English… at least to my ear. Where the show takes place is unclear and somewhat of an irritant. Here’s my surprise for the day, BBC America is based in New York. AND, Orphan Black is shot in Toronto. AND, the cast is Canadian.

In a casual survey of my family in Scotland, I learned that they watch American shows, but they have no idea what channels or studios produces them. My nephew watches Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, while his wife watches Dexter, Vampire Diaries and True Blood. My sister watches Criminal Minds, Family Guy, The Following, and Mad Men. Again, she is not channel aware. And here’s something I find interesting, her husband, a taxi-driver, downloads “a lot” of shows so he can view them in the car.

So my question of, “do British shows translate in the U.S. and vice versa?” is clearly yes. Here’s another question, did BBC America deliberately keep location and cast country-neutral?

Picking up on my nephew and his wife’s different tastes, I notice that my friends and their husbands go to different rooms in the house to watch their own shows. Rarely is there a crossover. For example, he likes The Walking Dead (as does their 12-year daughter), Game of Thrones, and various other reality shows like Pickers, Pawn Shop, etc. She watches The Good Wife, Californication, House of Lies, and Luther.

Since I’ve always considered TV viewing as a community activity i.e. the family sits around and watches a show together, I’ve never asked the question of whether TV execs create shows targeted at different audience segments in the way the film industry does, other than the obvious kids, teens, adults segmentation. So when it comes to writing, do I chose my target audience based on gender rather than nationality, which may be more of a relevant question.

In the way that a fellow student wants to quantify the “fear” factor, I want to identify the “crack” factor, which I’ve distilled down to the “shock” factor, as in “did s/he really just say that?” Viewers of Sex and The City will never forget when Carrie admits that she farted while having sex, or had the first discussion of anal sex we’ve ever seen on TV. This week, we mourn the passing of James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano, in The Sopranos, the number one television show of all time. Who ever heard of a mobster going to a shrink? We love our characters wrought with angst.

So for my TV show what angst can I wring up that hasn’t been seen or done before? I have this idea about exploring religious beliefs in the setting of a dive bar, kind of like a priest, a rabbi and a monk walk into a bar… except not that obvious. I want it wrapped in dark humor. I want it to open people's eyes to other points of view.

Should I be researching what is it about religion that touches people’s nerve points? Are Catholics shocked by different things than Muslims or Jews? My guess is yes, but I'm happy to be wrong. Is their humor different? My guess is no, but I'm happy to be wrong. Is this what I should be researching? If so, how? I could talk to a priest, a monk and a rabbi and get their take on things. I can talk to muslims, monks and Catholics and get their take on things... and write it all up in a paper… or just, maybe, I can create a YouTube Channel with different religious content from around the world and invite commentary. Or… ????

Suggestions, please? Thank you:)

Thursday, June 20, 2013


If only I wanted to do an animated film, I’d have all the resources up the wazoo with Pixar in my backyard and friends who are VFX production gurus. But, alas, I want to learn about TV and the industry for that is non-existent in San Francisco. Even when they locate a series in my beautiful Baghdad by the Bay, they only shoot the postcard scenes here. Trauma gave it a good shot but, sadly for our local production crews, the show didn’t take. (Add to my to-do list: watch failures and compare them to successes.)

Last week, in the name of networking, I went to Project Reboot, the second annual open house of production houses aiming to revitalize the film and TV industry in San Francisco. The equipment is here and the crew is here, just no projects to produce. Maybe I should stick with my original idea of creating a show set in San Francisco, where I’ve lived for thirty years and know like the back of my hand. Something to explore when I attend my first “Bay Area Film and TV Connection Meetup.” I also joined the Transmedia Meetup and am going to an event next week on Connecting the Cloud. Hopefully, I’ll learn something and even meet people.

There are a couple of groups of indie filmmakers, the co-op Scary Cow and MMTB (Making Movies Throughout the Bay Area), which are fun if you want to play at making movies, but I more interested in elevating the professionalism. These are good to know, however, if I do indeed choose to produce a pilot.

We also have a local chapter of Women in Film and Media, and maybe one of these days they’ll have an event that doesn’t conflict with something I already have on my calendar. I do subscribe to their Yahoo Group Chic’s Chat to keep in touch, as well as the Yahoo Lo/No Budget Film Group.

None of this, however, feels like it could lead somewhere. The co-writer of my script, It’s Not Always What It Seems, makes more connections through her part-time job in a consignment store. Even when she was in Mexico earlier this year (where I live half the year) she made a connection with Linda Hamilton! (BTW, Linda Hamilton is a very nice lady – says she read our script three times, but, ultimately, it just didn’t tickle her.)

Of course I have the Internet and am corralling my research into two other blogs – Quora and Scoop It. And, the pile of books to read is piling up by the day. How do I find time to read when I’m watching so much TV?!

I did find a TV consultant, (who’s book I bought) and who’s White Paper I downloaded, who offers a free 30 minute consult, so that could be a resource down the road (www.jengrisanticonsultancy.com). I also reached out to my friend Frank whose brother is the Executive Editor of Variety. Frank’s in Paris, so we’ll see what he can hook me up with when he returns.

And, incidentally, two screenplay properties dropped into my lap this week. Can’t talk about them just yet, but I’m editing the novel manuscript and… just maybe that’s what should be the basis of my TV show. It has all the elements… famous people, drugs, rock and roll, family betrayal, backstabbing and heartbreak.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Six TV Worlds

In my analysis of what makes irresistibly intriguing characters, I learned that, fundamentally, they’re all the same. So let’s look at what’s different…
a) their internal struggles
b) the worlds in which they live.

Mad Men brings us into the sexy advertising industry in 1950/60s' New York Madison Avenue.

Californication brings us into modern-day Los Angeles where it’s all sex, drugs and rock and roll.

House of Lies makes the boring world of management consulting sexy. One of the fundamental basics of the show is how our main characters keep score on who gets laid.

Orphan Black transforms our punk rock protagonist into a woman with a sexy pad, a phallic status symbol of a car, stiletto heels and pencil skirts. Then they put a gun in her hand and sprinkle the show with gratuitous gay sex for her brother.

The Good Wife is about faithfulness set against the backdrop of law, politics and ambition in Chicago.

Sex & the City is about exactly that… the sex lives of four high-flying women in glamorous New York City.… incorporating journalism and publishing, public relations, the law, and the world of art.

And their struggles? Well, as we learn when writing for the big screen, there are only two types of protagonists… those who are broken and those who are incomplete.

All three of our male protagonists are broken. All three of our female protagonists are incomplete. In the immortal words of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in... very interesting.

I’m finding this stream of consciousness very useful… still need three compelling questions, one of which may be: What world can I create that people will want to get into?

There's also something else that strikes me as consistent in these shows, one I'm going to call the "GLAM" factor.

Definition of glamorous:
An air of compelling charm, romance, and excitement, especially when delusively alluring.
Archaic. A magic spell; enchantment.

Modern Day TV Heroes

I’ve chosen three characters to analyze in my study of what constitutes fascinating, can’t get enough of, men ~ Mad Men’s Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), Californication’s Hank Moody (played by David Duchovny) and Marty Kaan of House of Lies (played by Don Cheadle).

I began with my own list of characteristics that they may have in common and created a matrix. Then I thought, Wonder how this rates against what traits women want in a mate? It didn’t take much digging (in this world of advice columns for dating singles) to come up with the following: Honest
Sense of Fun
Sexual Mastery
And last, though not least… a great smile! Well all of our Hollywood hunks have that. Here’s an interesting question – how many times in an episode do each of our protagonists smile? I'm guessing, a lot!

Conclusion: while exhibiting flaws, these characters are 'designed' to appeal to modern day ideals.

My next line of inquiry took me to, “What men look for in women?” As it turns out, men and women are not from different planets after all, according to a recent study reported in the New York Times.

So what do men want in their women? Turns out to be… confidence, intelligence, spontaneity, playfulness, sensuality, honesty, independence, supportiveness. And, here’s something I find interesting – “moderate neuroticism” – which is to say that they accept women are neurotic, they just want it tempered. I wonder if how much neurosis they’ll accept is correlated to how much sex they get? And, according to Ask Men’s #9, wearing red lingerie?

Interestingly enough, in a recent Mad Men episode in which Don was playing his own version of 50 Shades of Grey (or was it more akin to the Story of O?), he had a package delivered to his love slave. Can you guess what it was? Comment below and retweet to win a prize of… in this case only my gratitude. And here’s another observation, if advertisers were on the ball, or maybe just on the web, sales of red dresses would have skyrocketed. Yes, I answered the question.

#8 on Ask Men’s list is waist to hip ratio. Is it any wonder that Christine Hendricks is a hit?
#7 – large eyes and a balanced mouth. I’ll keep that in mind when it comes to casting.
#6 – a hot body. Even in Orphan Black, a BBC America, drama/thriller, the protagonist gets to strip and show off her hot bod on more than one occasion.
#5 – from a U.K. survey - men may find women who are extroverted, agreeable and highly empathic more appealing than women who exhibit these traits to a lesser degree. This definitely applies to Alicia Florick in The Good Wife; Carrie Bradshaw in Sex & The City; and even, to some degree, Sarah Manning in Orphan Black. These same characters also exhibit #3 on the list… self-sacrificing.

And what’s number one on our Ask Men list? Facial attractiveness. Well, we all know that we don’t have “ugly” protagonists, at least not in Hollywood.

So, even after this analysis of human characteristics, such as kindness and empathy, what all our protagonists share are good looks, hot bods and active sex lives. Mmmm.... I wonder what TV has learned from the porn industry?


Ask Men: http://www.askmen.com/top_10/dating/top-10-traits-attractive-women-look-for-in-a-man.html

Yahoo Lifestyle UK: http://uk.lifestyle.yahoo.com/5-qualities-women-look-men-081030930.html

Decoding Women: http://decodingwomenshow.com/1/post/2013/03/top-5-qualities-that-women-find-most-attractive-in-a-man.html

Men’s Health: http://www.menshealth.com/mhlists/most_desirable_traits

New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/21/opinion/sunday/the-tangle-of-the-sexes.html?_r=0

Ask Men: http://www.askmen.com/top_10/dating/top-10-proven-traits-men-desire-in-women.html

Sunday, June 16, 2013

How Hard Can It Be?

... to come up with three questions? Not hard at all... one would think! But...

What goes into a groundbreaking TV show? I sort of know the answer... writing material that is "groundbreaking," as in covers content that hasn't been touched before, such as... dealing weed in the suburbs, living and fucking in L.A., polygamy, producing and selling meth...

Behind these stories are memorable characters with ~ and I think this is what motivates me most to watch them ~ uber cool dialogue.

To hear Marty Kaan (played by Don Cheadle) ask of his ex-wife, "which of these cunties are you fucking?" is laugh-out-loud shocking, especially when it's shouted out in a professional setting. To hear him tell his employees that the client's wife wants his black cock (and prove to be right) is OMG did he really just say that?

So, this stream of consciousness is proving useful... the CRACK factor of House of Lies lies in its shock value and making you feel uncomfortable. For those not familiar, Marty Kaan leads a posse, aka pod, of three employees who keep a "score" score, which is to say they've created a game that awards points for getting laid. One of the characters is hapless, socially-inept Doug Guggenheim, a Harvard grad who's a numbers genius. As the others tease him mercilessly, we squirm, embarrassed for the guy while, at the same time, laughing at the joke. I introduced this show to one of my dearest friends this week. I was happy to watch it with her... for my third time. I lost count of how many times she smacked me (gently) with each WTF as we watched one show after another... after another... and another.

So, maybe, one of my questions is "What's the crack factor?" and how do I crack it?

And so that it's clear to my readers when I say crack, I don't mean the Irish version of craic (although I definitely want that in everything I write). I do mean the highly-addictive drug that makes people want more.

Speaking of more... to be continued.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Brilliant Beginnings ~ Part Two

A dapper Don Draper sits alone jotting on a napkin in a stylish, crowded bar. He asks the Black waiter if he has a light for his cigarette. The waiter strikes a match, to which Don comments, “Old Gold man, huh? Lucky Strike here,” indicating his own brand of smoke. A Caucasian boss intercedes, assuming that the Black waiter, “Sam” (not Thomas, Paul or Peter, but SAMbo) is being a bother, calling him "chatty" in an accusatory way. As an audience, we sympathize with Sam, as does Don, because deferential Sam has yet to utter a word. The head honcho leaves to fetch Don another “old fashioned.”

Don resumes his line of questioning, which is, in fact, research into brand loyalty. Sam is committed to his brand of Old Gold, but, pressed, admits that if there were no Old Gold on the planet, he’d probably be able to find something else. He explains, “I love smoking. My wife hates it. Reader’s Digest says, ‘It will kill you.’” They both snicker. Sam adds, “Ladies love their magazines.” They’re just two regular guys sharing a harmless observation of the opposite sex, right?

The music in the b.g. gets louder, lyrics kick in, “Just want that little band of gold to prove that you are mine.” The camera (Don’s POV) pans the room of elegant cocktailers, nigh every one with a cigarette in hand. As the season progresses, Don’s client, Lucky Strike will play an important role and, ultimately, be the cause of his professional demise.

Meanwhile, in these opening three minutes of AMC's Mad Men, we learn that: Don is a loner, an observer of humanity, possibly an outsider, definitely a man at the top; racism is alive and well; and women are not to be taken seriously. The choice of music serves fabulous double-duty: is it referencing the addiction to cigarettes or, the requisite for female status in the world, a wedding ring?

Is it no wonder that Mad Men enjoyed instant “runaway critical acclaim?” The opening alone is packed with layer upon layer of nuance and that's without discussing the production values. Do mere mortals write this stuff? I’m encouraged because, as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Tom Goodman notes, “Almost none of the coverage for "Mad Men" explains that this is a show about interiors.” Phew! It’s within our realm; mere gods couldn’t possibly understand the interior turmoil of humans.


San Francisco Chronicle: http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Mad-Men-Smart-subtle-character-study-3202717.php

Groundbreaking Then and Groundbreaking Now

This is the trailer for Californication, now in its sixth season:

And the trailer for House of Lies, embarking on its third season:

The opening to Californication, described in my previous post:

Sadly, I can't find the opening to House of Lies to post here.

These are for my records as I pursue the question of what constitutes a groundbreaking and successful TV show. How is it projected to viewers to gain an audience? And how does it deliver on its promise? How are they similar? How are they different? Is there a formula? And... more importantly... can it be CRACKed?!

Would love to hear comments on these shows, if you're familiar with them, and others that you love.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Brilliant Beginnings

A beautifully-lit, plush bedroom in an expensive hi-rise ~ informed by designer white leather chairs, white shag rug, hardwood floors, silk curtains and city view. Man’s pants, a woman’s dress scatter the floor.

On pristine white sheets, a Caucasian woman, naked but for bitchy high heels, and a naked Black man, upside down, sprawled over her, are both asleep. He wakes up. His expression indicates he doesn’t remember what happened. He does a double-take on her ass. Oh, yes, he recognizes it. He scrambles to get dressed, to wake her up. She is dead to the world; even cold water thrown on her face has no effect. He struggles to dress her dead-weight body, wriggling her dress on from the bottom up. He falls, his face smacks between her ass cheeks.

Cut to him dumping her on a chair, dress barely on, boobs exposed. He props her up, plops a laptop in her lap, yanks up her dress. A young teen walks in the door. Dressed in lavender tights and skirt, buzz cut hair, we don’t know if this is a boy or a girl, but, judging by the voice, probably a boy. The kid calls, “Hey, Dad.” Dad leaps around, startled. The kid announces that Grandpa is making French toast. He then inquires, “What’s Mom doing here?” “Working,” says Dad. “Should I tell Grandpa to make her French toast?” Dad replies, “Absolutely not.” The kid does a twirl as he exits. Mom startles awake, her disheveled hair frozen in slow motion. Dad addresses the camera. “Don’t… ever…. fuck…. your… ex-wife.”

That is the first two minutes of Showtime’s House of Lies, billed as a black comedy about a big-moneymaking management consultant and his high-rolling, low-ethics team. How much better can the opening to a new T.V. show get?

How about… to the tune of a church choir singing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”: A Porche heads up a cemetery driveway past lawns being watered by sprinklers (as filmmakers, we prefer our tarmac wet, right?) towards a church of Notre Dam proportions. The driver, handsome, scruffy, smoking a cigarette, gets out the car, pulls of his dark shades. The cigarette is thrown into a font of holy water. The man walks up the aisle, past white pews, towards a crucifixion, “Hey, Big Guy, you and me. I’ve never done this before but desperate times call for desperate measures. My name is Hank.”

A young nun appears, “Hello Hank.” She offers to help him. He doesn’t want to bother a real person, but explains that he’s “having a crisis of faith.” He can’t write. This sucks because he’s supposed to be a writer, a professional one at that. He is erudite and profane. He apologizes. She responds, “Normally, I would suggest a couple of ‘Our Fathers’ or ‘Hail Mary’s’, but I don’t think that’s going to get it done. What about a blow job?” She pulls off her wimple, shakes out her long blonde hair, gets on her knees before him. Hank holds out his hand to block Jesus’s view, saying, “Sweet Baby Jesus, Hank is going to hell.” Hank startles awake.

In less than three minutes, we know our protagonist, Hank Moody, and his chief problem in life. Thus begins another Showtime creation, Californication, which just finished its sixth season.

For more detail on the intro to Californication, read a review here.

For more detail on the intro to House of Lies, read a review here.

What other brilliant openings to TV shows can you recommend?

Friday, June 7, 2013


Serpico, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino, is a true-story crime drama made in 1973. It tells the story of Frank Serpico, an honest cop, who blew the whistle on the corruption running rampant in the force, only to have his colleagues turn on him. Shot in the face, he miraculously survived.

I chose this film because it has stuck in my memory these many years. Perhaps, as an impressionable teen I was struck by the fun bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village New York City, which, ironically, is where I lived when I arrived in America in 1982. More than that, however, I think the film is memorable because of the character, Frank Serpico, who stays true to himself, to his own values, his own code of conduct, in spite of what others may think or do. I believe this is the theme of the film, that individuals must do the right thing.

The movie opens with white on black titles against the sound of someone in pain and the blare of sirens. Our first image is a close-up of Serpico with, what we will learn is, a bullet hole in his face. We then cut to a police station where it is announced that Serpico has been shot and we are informed there are at least six cops who’d want to kill him. A reporter then wakes up someone important in the middle of the night, so we know that Serpico is not just ‘any old’ cop. A flashback of Serpico graduating from the police academy as the code of conduct is recited tells us that Serpico will uphold that code of integrity, courage, perseverance, character and courtesy. These are his values. In under five minutes, we know what this movie is about.

The story progresses with Serpico going beyond the call of duty as a patrolman only to be circumvented from credit and advancement by higher-ups. This happens at eighteen minutes and is repeated at forty minutes with the line, “Life is Unfair.” Meanwhile, we are introduced to police corruption: small at first, such as getting free food at a restaurant in return for overlooked parking infractions, that escalates into envelopes of cash for payoffs. His unorthodox methods, which include his physical transformation from clean-cut cop to long-haired Bohemian, rub other cops the wrong way. At the end of act one, Serpico is accused of being gay. This launches him onto the path to become a detective where his transformation continues as he continually plays with his appearance in the role of undercover cop that will ultimately be his demise.

The story resonates with me as a screenwriter because it is the epitome of the hero’s journey and the script hits every plot point on the mark. The Writers Guild of America awarded it the “Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium.” It also won “Best Picture” in 1974’s Golden Globes. For the Academy Award’s Best Actor, Pacino was up against Marlon Brando (Last Tango in Paris), Jack Nicholson (The Last Detail), Robert Redford (The Sting) and, the winner, Jack Lemmon (Save the Tiger).

As a producer and director, I find the movie interesting because it was shot “fast and loose,” as noted in TMC’s review, “with scenes being edited as they were shot.” This sounds like the precursor to modern filmmakers such as (one of my personal heroes) Robert Rodriguez when he shot Once Upon a Time in Mexico in digital hi-def.

Serpico is ranked 84 on the AFI’s List of 100 Most Inspiring Films of All Time, sandwiched between Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and What’s Love Got To Do With It. Frank Serpico is ranked 40 on AFI’s 100 Heroes and Villains, on a par with Freddy Krueger as a villain.

On a final note, I'd love to hear what others think of the score of the film. It seemed to really play a part establishing tone, especially when Frank was "back to his roots" with his family. I can't decide whether it was sentimentally OTT or "just right." Composed by Mikis Theodorakis, it was nominated for a BAFTA and, in 1975, for Album of Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture in the Grammy Awards.

Oh! And what do you think of the trailer?!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

MISMO the movie

The teaser trailer we made for Mismo, a feature film that I co-wrote and produced. Told in parallel storylines, the story revolves around a faith-doubting Latina who sees visions of her gay brother dying. The film was shot in 44 locations on nights and weekends over a 6-month period. The film features a score by award-winning composer Ed Bogas, as well as a sound track featuring music from Calexico, Sean Hayes and Xavier Toscano, among others.

For full details, visit our website: Mismothemovie.

Mismo Trailer

Our second trailer... after the movie was completed.

The Making of Mismo

Meet the cast and crew of Mismo, with behind-the-scenes commentary.

Mismo Sneak Peek...

Following a private screening of Mismo, viewers gave their take on the film.

Mismo In One Word

Following a private screening, viewers gave their one-word description of the film, Mismo.

Naz-T-Nice / Mismo

So then we thought it would be fun to make a music video...

The Indie Film Dilemma

This was me playing with what was then a new tool (www.xtranormal.com) that converts text to film. I wrote the script and 'directed' the robots.

One Sound

Intimidated by the hip, multi-cultural cafe culture of San Francisco, a frumpy woman is rejuvenated and joins the crowd with the help of Apple Computer.

AT&T Your World Transformed

The short, One Sound, cut to 30-seconds and adapted for AT&T to enter the MOFILM Global Brand Video Contest, for which the film was awarded a prize.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Mr. Anthony ~ Natural Beauty is an Oxymoron

A San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking project, made with fellow students as crew. Produced and edited by me.

Chai Wallah

This short video (and the one following of the ladies creating a kolam) is an example of what I do for fun. Shot on a Flip camera.

Bringing in the New Year, South Indian Style

Women create a Kolam to bring in the new year, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, New Year's eve, 2008.

Shot on a Flip camera, I edited what was hours of work down to four minutes.


A San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking student project; a commercial for Egyptian cotton sheets using my surname to play off the luxury company, Frette. Conceived, produced, directed, edited by me, working with a team of fellow student filmmakers.

The Damnedest, Finest Ruins

"Lorraine was the driving force behind the completion of my film, THE DAMNEDEST, FINEST RUINS. She did research, organized and found photographs, commented on all of our choices and decisions, promoted and marketed our film tour of the Mid West. She is beyond charming, extremely efficient, and knowledgeable on everything from web sites to promotion, book keeping, designs and lay outs, film making, and making sense of anything that baffles the lesser minds among us."
~ James Dalessandro

The Damnedest Finest Ruins is the definitive work on the Great 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Written and directed by James Dalessandro (author of the best-selling novel 1906 ), The Damnedest, Finest Ruins paints a riveting portrait of the earthquake and fire that wiped a city of 450,000 people off the face of the earth during three terrible days in April of 1906.

The high-def production, narrated by acclaimed actor Peter Coyote, features the digitally re-mastered music of Enrico Caruso, who performed in Carmen at San Francisco's famed opera house five hours before the disaster struck. The film incorporates never-before-seen still photos, hand-cranked Edison film clips, appearances by historian Gladys Hansen and San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, and exposes the enormous human folly that led to the burning of 29,000 buildings and more than $400 million dollars in destruction.


A trailer for a hypothetical movie made as a Scary Cow Production, a San Francisco indie film co-op. I created the story, co-wrote the script, and was team leader/producer.