Saturday, October 01, 2005

Lost and found

Looks like the Feds got to Grillo-Marxuach. In his most recent blog post he writes that he has removed his refutations to David Fury’s remarks in order to deal with particular grievances privately. This is very admirable, entirely laudable, and if I had any children, I’d consider Javier an excellent role-model for them.

However, the excised post was less about how hurt he had been by Fury’s comments and more of an insight into how a season of television is developed, episodes broken and the operations of the writers room.

Understanding this, he states:

for those of you who commented positively on how my entry detailed the inner workings of the writers room, i'll be glad to post a primer on how tv shows are written - using a theoretical show, theoretical writers, and addressing no grievances - real or imagined.

I really hope Javier manages to do this at some point. I’m sure that it would be a fascinating read, but we all know that sometimes, statements to get things done don’t always result in action.

Because of this, and because the internet, like Sherwood Forest, is a place where nothing is ever forgotten, I am going to quote the parts of his post most relevant to the creative process, minus all references to David Fury and the post’s original motivation.

I hope people are cool with this. I’m not disrespecting Grillo-Marxuach’s wishes or privacy; many people will have read his post yesterday, Rolling Stone is available in stores everywhere, and knowledge of his dissatisfaction with the interview is pretty much widespread, particularly in the blogosphere. And I am, after all, only quoting the parts of his post relevant to the gestation of a TV show, because I think people can learn from them, and because “writers’ room vs auteurs” has been something of an ongoing theme of late and this is a welcome addition to the debate. As the man says, “openness helps better stories to be born.”

i began working at “lost” a full three months before the show received an air order. the pilot script was not even completed when i first reported to work along with three other writers: jennifer johnson, paul dini and christian taylor.

damon lindelof and jj abrams gave us the task to develop plot and character ideas for the show in order to better convince the network of the viability of “lost” as a series.

those sessions begat many of the core ideas of what “lost” is today. the characters’ backstories were developed in that room, as well as several long-term plot elements (the nature of the island, the monster, etc.).

during that time, we developed a conceptual framework for the island as well as a conceptual framework for the characters. over the course of a season-and-a-half, we have continued to deepen those ideas into individual episodic stories and seasonal arcs.

however ...

...the truth about all television shows – arc-dependent or otherwise, is that they are slightly amorphous living beings. they develop over time and things that work or don’t work are used or discarded accordingly.

consider “babylon 5,” probably the most arc-dependent sci-fi show ever made. i simply can’t believe that j. michael straczynski always intended for the departure (be it voluntary or involuntary) of his series lead, michael o’hare - at the end of the first season - to be part of his long-standing arc.

the loss of a lead actor is a cataclysmic event in any series. in the case of b5, it required a major reorganization of the story which resulted in a big new element of mythology. even the most regimented series in the genre – a self-proclaimed “novel for television” - had to adjust and change in the face of unforeseen contingency.

how does this apply to "lost?"

as the creator of the hurley backstory that was discarded in favor of the lottery winner story, i can say that, indeed, the original hurley backstory (he was supposed to have been the world’s greatest repo man, sent to australia on a mission to get his biggest prize yet) just didn’t work and had to go.

it would have made for lousy television.

so the hurley backstory was, indeed, a work-in-progress for much of the season. that's how good television is made - if some part of your plan doesn't work, you rework it until it does.

consider the hatch. when i was first hired at “lost” jj was insistent that the castaways find a mysterious hatch in the island. damon was excited about the idea, but did not want to incorporate it into the series until he knew exactly what was in the hatch.

the contents of the hatch were discussed in the writer’s room of “lost” about a third of the way into the first season. by the time the hatch actually appeared on the screen in episode eleven, we knew very well what would be inside – and who put it there and why (the “who put it there was,” in fact, something that came out of the early brainstorming sessions during the filming of the pilot – only then it had a different name) – and were actively building up to that revelation.

the question is – does making these adjustments, accommodating new ideas that enrich our series, and letting the show be a creative process that allows for new development mean we are lying when we say we have a master plan?

you tell me.

this is what i know to be true...

- we know what the island is.

- we know the function of the monster.

- we know who built the hatch and why.

- we know who the others are and how they wound up on the island.

- we know the back-stories of our characters and the past transgressions that they will be working out in the crucible of the island.

- we knew how the first season would end well in advance and already know how the second will end as well.

- we know that we can’t hinge the endings of the third and fourth seasons on any particular revelations yet because we don’t know how long the series will last and have to time our disclosure of our secrets accordingly.

- we know why oceanic 815 crash landed on the island.

here are some other parts of our master plan:

- we invent stories for the daily life of the characters on the island on an ongoing basis because exploration of mythology alone doesn’t allow you to create compelling drama: with every episode we ask ourselves the question “what’s going on in the island and how can we use that to show off the problems of our characters and reveal some of our mythological elements.”

- we allow ourselves the freedom to incorporate new ideas that improve and enhance our story (another example – the moment the hatch appeared, we knew there’d be a person down there, but Desmond’s individual story did not develop until later).

- we know the show will end when we reveal the true makeup of the island and why our characters landed there.

in the interest of full disclosure, i should also say that there may be more that i don’t know. damon, jj and carlton cuse are the self-appointed keepers of the mythology, sometimes they will come to us with some new revelation, or simply take it upon themselves to make changes where they deem it necessary. hey, it’s their show.

so there it is. do we have a master plan? i think we do. i helped build it

...we know where we are going, but we also have the flexibility to take detours along the way and explore things we find interesting. do we make things up on the fly? of course we do... uh, that’s our job.

i have often described the writers room as the combination of the world’s longest group therapy session and the bataan death march. when you are in a writers room, the people there become your family for the length of the season. you get to know them warts and all, you see their weaknesses and strengths, you see more of them than you do of your spouse and children and you get to a point where you have to be comfortable exposing whatever is inside of you in order to create the best possible story.

at best, the writers room is a place of trust. a place of sharing of experience: a place that has to exude a sense of safety in order to work. it is a place where everyone’s willingness to throw in whatever they have to make the stories function results in sustained collective excellence.

if a television show is no good, chances are it begins with some deficiency in the writers room. it is because the writers are not working together and filtering out each others’ worst impulses.

a good example of how the writers room works in a series such as "lost" the creation of the story that eventually became [the] emmy-nominated episode "walkabout." episode which is rightfully hailed as a turning point in the series and a signature moment of "lost."

however, like all episodes of this - and almost any television show - that story was "broken" in the writers room. it was discussed, conceived and divided into acts and scenes in an environment where a group of writers sat together, shared their best ideas and thoughts, and collectively filtered out the chaff to come up with the best possible version of that story...

the original conception of the final revelation of "walkabout" was that, after placing all of his hopes and dreams on a genuine australian walkabout vacation, john locke was crestfallen to find that his "genuine" aboriginal experience was indeed a tourist trap - a cheap and watered-down experience devoid of spiritual meaning.

in this version of the episode - which never got farther than the dry-erase board in the writers room - the final scene of the flashback would have been a profoundly disgusted locke, miserably sitting in the walkabout bus surrounded by screaming children... his life devoid of the meaning he has hoped to find.

this conclusion would have completely worked within the conceptual framework we had laid out for locke during the pilot phase of the show - that he was a profoundly unhappy office drone whose dreams of a grandiose destiny were continually dashed by cruel reality but given a new lease on the island. in our plan for the series, locke was always intended to be a man driven to faithful zealotry by a belief that the plane crash was predestined, and this formulation of his story would have served that theme well.

notice, however, that this version of the story does not include what many consider to be the "big twist" of the episode - the revelation of locke as wheelchair bound and healed by the island.

that's because it didn't exist until damon pitched it in the room as an idea to further push locke's misery into a physical reality that would play on film.

and there was strenuous opposition to this idea. some of the writers and producers of the show felt that it pushed us into too mystical a terrain - that it robbed "lost" of a crucial human dimension that was necessary to maintain an illusion of reality given all the fantastical things we had already established.

...other possibilities were discussed and entertained. we cut the guts out of the story to see if the wheelchair idea - and several other alternatives - held water.

it was ultimately decided that a wheelchair-bound locke was the way to go, and the show is better for it.

that's what the writers room does. it forces every idea, good and bad, to stand up to scrutiny and either live or die on its own merit.

after that, it's up to the writer to make those ideas come to life: and there is a big difference between a good story break that is well-executed by a writer and one that isn't.

as i said, the writer's room is a place of trust - it's a place where writers see the best and worst that they each have to offer. on more than one occasion i have said things in the writers room that i wouldn’t tell 99.9% of the people in my life. why? because that level of openness helps better stories to be born.

I like the sound of these writers’ rooms. I like it much better than the idea of a writer working alone to create an individual masterpiece that may never be aired or paid for. Honestly, I think it’s the way to go in this country, and I’ll be saddened if in three years time, our TV landscape hasn’t changed dramatically and embraced what is, when you look at the bottom line, a process that creates the most exportable drama in the world.

Category: Movies and TV

1 comment:

  1. I know this comment is like three years late, but thanks again for posting this. I finally watched Season 1 of Lost last week, and found this 'edited' version of how the room works/worked a fascinating read.

    (I moderated a workshop with Fury back in 2000...interesting character...any chance the unedited version and the Rolling Stone interview are still kicking around?)