Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With Craig Silverstein, Part 2

A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!
by Kelly Jo Brick

TN_110_AP_0320_ 0160

From making films on VHS with his middle and high school friends to being the creator of Nikita and TURN: Washington’s Spies, writer Craig Silverstein shares his experiences and insights from being a showrunner and what he looks for when hiring writers.

TELL US ABOUT THE TRANSITION FROM BEING ON STAFF TO CREATING YOUR OWN SHOW.

In my case it was working my way up and learning the ropes and experiencing production, which I was very lucky to get to do and to have really encouraging showrunners.

By the end of the second season of The Invisible Man I had directed an episode. From going from just being a staff writer, I became a Co-Producer by the end of the thing and they let me direct once.   That was about the best first experience that I could have had.

From there I had kept going up and then when you do your own show, it starts with a pilot. So you have to do that. And my friend Dave, who was actually that guy from Ithaca that I drove out with, he had an idea for this thing called Town of Tomorrow and we developed it together into a pilot called, Newton, while I was working on a show called The Dead Zone.

We sold it to UPN and they picked it up as a pilot and that’s the thing that really put me into another category because the script became very well known. The pilot wasn’t good. We screwed up the pilot.

So how do you transition into that stuff? My experience is, you make mistakes. So I wrote a pilot script, figured out how to do that and then screwed up the pilot. I kind of trusted all these people who were more experienced than me to do their jobs and when they didn’t, I was kinda like, “Oh, my God.”

I had the wrong, trustful attitude going in, so in my next show, Standoff, I fixed all the mistakes and the pilot process went well, so it got picked up to series. Then I screwed up the series. The way I hired writers, the way I ran the room. Different things. It wasn’t bad, but I definitely made mistakes and I learned from those mistakes and applied them to the next thing, which was Nikita. And now I know how to run a series. That’s how it happened for me.

WHEN YOU ARE LOOKING TO HIRE A WRITER FOR YOUR STAFF, DO YOU PREFER TO READ ORIGINAL WORK OR A SPEC?

Definitely original. I want to hire someone to write like them, not like me. How they are at mimicking someone else’s voice or show is less interesting to me because I actually want something that is a little bit of outside of myself, like I wouldn’t have gone there. And so I need to see their original voice.

I also need to see how they would structure something given no parameters. You know how an episode of whatever is supposed to break out if you study it. I like to see how in their pilot or feature, they can structure. When I hired this guy, Albert Kim, for Nikita, his script that I read was a pilot called How to Cheat. It was a romantic comedy. It had nothing to do with action, spies or anything like that, but I came away going this guy knows how to structure a script and structure a scene. That’s more valuable to me. You can teach all the rest of the stuff.

BEYOND THE WRITING, WHAT ELSE MAKES A POTENTIAL STAFF WRITER STAND OUT TO YOU?

That’s a very intangible thing. For me it’s just an energy between two people. It’s sort of like if someone is going off and off and off about themselves, that’s kind of a warning sign.

I think that I can also sometimes tell now who really wants not just a job, but wants to work on this show. There is that difference and you can see it.

WHAT’S THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU GET FROM ASPIRING WRITERS?

I think it is, “How did you get your start?” The thing I always say is, “Do you have your script together?” Because a surprising amount don’t have a script. They want to know where to pitch, but you have to have the paper, you have to have that. It has to be good and so it’s sort of like you have to have your sample. You have to have that original pilot or that feature. That is key because everything flows from that. It’s still all about the script.

ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR WRITERS LOOKING TO MAKE THEIR START?

I always feel like to really love your characters and to write from your heart and your gut and not so much what you think. Don’t write with a reaction in mind, what you think someone else is going to like. There’s always going to be somebody who can come along to help you shape it and tailor it into something.

Write alone, but don’t be alone. Try to have friends and live your life because that stuff ends up creating more for your writing but also, it’s your thing to get your script around.

Didn’t read Part 1? It’s HERE


 

Kelly Jo Brick is a Contributing Editor at TVWriter™. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.


 

5 Tips for Building Better Cinematic Suspense

Cinematic suspense, whether the final product will be on TV or in movie theaters, starts with the script. So remember to add the following mix to what you’re writing ASAP: (Yes, even to those that are defined as camera techniques. After all, it’s the script that tells the director to use them)

suspense

by Caleb Davis

If you are like me, then you appreciate a film that is so suspenseful it quite literally brings you to the edge of your seat. It’s in those moments, when a film is not a series of shots but rather a cohesive, frightful and nerve racking story, that it has accomplished its goal of creating suspense.

What are common filmmaking techniques for creating suspense? I’ve listed out my favorites below. Use these tips and examples to help improve your film’s suspenseful edge.

Tip #1: Give You Character Breathing Room

Many films today utilize a fast cutting routine of quick edits and spastic pacing that encourages a quick cheap suspense. For deeply suspenseful editing, try giving your characters a few extra seconds of screen time. Create a slow, methodical pacing in your scene, showcasing close-ups.

If you are in the process of revealing an important plot element, or simply establishing the anxious nature of the character surrounding their situation, allow the shot to linger before cutting away. The longer you hold on your character, the more anxious the audience will become when the stakes get high.

Tip #2: Time Your Reveal

Suspense in film is based around the anticipation of an upcoming event, and how the story unfolds in the attempt to get there. As you decide where to place your reveal, allow your cuts to build without becoming too hasty. As we can see in this example from The Dark Knight, music plays an important role in building the tension until the reveal.

Read it all at Premium Beat

Diana Black on Building Dramatic Conflict and Tension

tennis hell

The Tennis Match
by Diana Black

Humans tend to thrive on conflict; without a ‘them’, it’s harder to define an ‘us’. A tennis match or a TV drama; it’s all the same for the observer – how to win and how not to lose – Survival 101. The most memorable of battles are not the slam dunk variety. We want ‘blood’ with a ‘fight to the death’ between two equally matched rivals. We sit on the sidelines with bated breath; licking our slavering chops at the smell of victory or, succumbing to despair with the smell of defeat. No one wants to be a loser.

The classic example of a prelude to the ‘Tennis Match’ comes from Edward Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf(1962). For the illiterate among you, spend a few moments of your precious time viewing the late great Robert Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at their best and most vicious in the characters of George and Martha; the film version directed by Mike Nichols. It’s an ugly yet breath-taking example of just how nasty it can get when the gloves come off in a toxic relationship.

Martha: I looked at you tonight and you weren’t there!… I’m not gonna give a damn what I do…
George: You try and I’ll beat you at your own game.
Martha: Is that a threat, George, huh?
George: That’s a threat, Martha.
Martha: You’re gonna get it, baby.
George: Be careful, Martha. I’ll rip you to pieces.
Martha: You’re not man enough. You haven’t the guts!
George: Total war?
Martha: Total!

And then he wins, delivering a crushing defeat, albeit a necessary one in order for them to ‘move on’ psychologically; yet they love one another.

As writers – even those of us who are nice, fine-and-upstanding people – we have no choice but to put the characters through hell. The viewers, en masse, a primitive and ghastly lot, don’t want to see a quick fight. No, no, no… the characters must suffer a terrible defeat or after going through hell, be gloriously triumphant.

That means, like George and Martha, it’s ‘game on’ for young and old – quite disgusting, yet people pay big money for such a voyeuristic experience.

What of the ‘ball’ in the tennis match? For your TV Pilot to be received favorably, ‘it’ must never be dropped, not ever. The ball is the energy level you’ve maintained via the dramatic tension you’ve created (or not) with both characters ruthlessly determined to get their objective – one way or another.

You may have created dramatic tension via plot twists, oscillating the characters and the audience between hope and fear, or revealing character in a way that the viewer or gatekeeper never saw coming.

It could be as a result of the vile tactics used with no qualms, scene-by-scene, until the battle is resoundingly won; unless you have a character in self-destruct mode. Verbal manifestations of Kapow!, Zap!, Crunch! are hurled at the other; even when delivered with a gentle voice and a smile.

Neither gives a damn about the other because they can’t afford to.

They may consciously know that to win means getting ugly and some will struggle with the cruelty of their actions but they’re driven all the same till the bitter end. Or, totally incensed and on a rampage, they’re unaware of the carnage until it is too late.

It’s your choice as the writer but such had better be there or your chances of getting that TV Pilot green-lit are slim to nonexistent.

There – do you feel the tension?  (“We call it development hell.”)


 

Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer. TVWriter™ is proud to call her a member of our Advanced Online Workshop.

John Ostrander on Making Your Characters Miserable

woodyamiserable

by John Ostrander

Stranger Than Fiction, a 2006 film from director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball, and World War Z, among others), is a favorite of Mary’s and mine. It that starred Will Farrell in a very atypical Will Farrell role, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson.

The story concerns an IRS auditor named Harold Crick who starts to hear a narrator in his head. The voice turns out to be a world famous author who is writing a story about an IRS auditor named Harold Crick. The author, Karen Eiffel, always kills off her main character at the end of the book. The real Harold’s only hope to survive is to find the reclusive author and convince her not to kill him. Eventually, they meet.

Karen Eiffel, understandably, is freaked to encounter an actual Harold Crick. He’s just as she pictured him. They both know that if she kills him off in prose, he will die in reality. She is confronted with the reality of what she does; Harold Crick isn’t just a creature of her imagination. He’s a flesh and blood person.

As a writer, I find that notion unnerving.

I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to have a somewhat similar experience. At the Motor City Con I got a chance to meet the actor, Michael Rowe, who was playing Floyd Lawton – Deadshot – on the TV series Arrow. And, yes, a bit of Stranger Than Fiction ran through my head. Of course, Mike Rowe is not Deadshot; he was perfectly nice and friendly and complimentary. However, I had a few nanoseconds of feeling, well, anxious.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t think I would want to meet most of my characters face to face. Why? Because I’m the guy who makes their lives miserable. I can see most of them wanting to take a swing at me – or worse. For them, I am the Creator. I incarnate their lives and their adventures. I’m god. Notthe god but a god (as spake Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day).

Have you ever had a day when you really just wanted to haul off and hit your Creator? I know I have and I’m an agnostic. When my late wife Kim was dying, I was sitting in the car at one point, hitting the steering wheel and cussing out God. I thought we had a deal; I would accept her death and she would die without pain. That day she was in excruciating pain.

I talked it over with my pastor, The Rev Phillip Wilson, and he thought my cussing out God was a good thing. He said that the Bible had lots of instances where the human argued or yelled at God. Towards the end of the story of Job, the title character learns that all his troubles stem from a bet between God and Satan and lets loose on Yahweh for destroying his life. Job was justified if you ask me.

God’s answer? Essentially, God skirts the issue and demands, “Hey, where were you when I created everything?” He tells Job that he’d better button it. Not a real answer but I can see why Job didn’t press the issue. This is Yahweh after all who drowned the earth in a fit of pique.

So why do I do it? Why do I make my characters’ lives so miserable?

It’s for the sake of the story.

When we were first married, Kim used to ask me how would I react in such and such a situation. How would I feel?  (I could get myself into trouble by suggesting that this is the sort of speculative question some women like to ask their men. I don’t want to get in trouble by saying that, although I admit to thinking it.) I would always answer “I dunno. Ask me when we get there.”

I felt and feel that’s a fair answer. We don’t know how we would react in a given situation or facing this or that pressure. We only know how we’d like to think we would act but until you’re in that moment, you don’t know. You can’t until you’re actually faced with the situation.

How we react in those situations reveal who we really are – not who we think we are or hope we would be. In a story, it reveals character. The tougher the situation, the clearer we see who the character really is. It’s one of the rules about character. It’s not what they say, it’s what they do that really matters – just like in life.

By putting my characters through the wringer, I reveal who they are and the reader, by vicarious experience, may learn something more of who they are. That makes the whole exercise worthwhile. That can make the story compelling and memorable.

So what I do to my characters is not out of sadism (well, not only out of sadism) but for the sake of the story.

However, I still wouldn’t want to meet GrimJack or most of my other characters in a darkened alley in the middle of the night.

Brrrr.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. This post originally appeared in his blog at ComicMix.

Troy DeVolld Dishes About His Career in Reality TV

For the past decade or so, writer-producer Troy DeVolld has been a pivotal presence in the world of reality TV…and a frequent contributor to TVWriter™ as well. Thanks to this podcast, we now have the chance to listen to this master storyteller spin what could be his most exciting tale yet – his life:

troybaby

Click HERE to hear Troy on the GIRLZ IN THE WOOD PODCAST

Surviving When Your Script Goes into Production

If you’re writing for TV, you know you’re a professional when you realize that your goal is to create scripts that aren’t just for reading but for shooting. Most of us find watching our work being shot both exhilarating and frustrating. Here are some tips for surviving a situation that, if you’re lucky, will endure for the rest of your professional life:

interstellar

by Mark Sanderson

If you’re blessed enough to actually sell a screenplay or get paid for an assignment job, your script will move into the important development process where hopefully your project marches toward production. This is your opportunity to shine as the ultimate collaborator and team player and you should do whatever it takes to move the project closer to the ultimate goal of production. It’s not the time to be precious with your material or a diva that bristles at the necessary changes. You want to stay involved in the development process as long as possible to help build your reputation and show your producers and director how vital it is to keep you around.

I’m blessed to have collaborated with many of the directors of my assignment screenplays because of my close working relationship with the producers. When the script finally hooks a director, the producer receives suggestions on how best to shoot the film given the director’s vision and the budget. That’s when I meet with the director and we discuss the requirements to push it closer toward production. Most of the directors I’ve worked with are veterans of the business, some with hundreds of hours of TV or dozens of films to their credit, and it’s in my best interest to listen and learn. Some of the directors have also been writers, and I’ve been fortunate they have respected that I wrote the screenplay and allowed me to do my job as they do theirs.

I’ve been lucky these directors never dictated to me what they needed as if I was an assistant, but treated me as a full collaborator. We discussed the issues and I was given a chance for my input, and then I went off and made the changes under the agreed deadline. The producers allowed this process to happen and it showed their respect for the role of the screenwriter on their project. I’ve been lucky, as this might not be the norm in Hollywood and your first time out may be different. If you do get a chance to work with directors, savor the experience and learn all you can from them as mentors.

Working with directors is an invaluable experience because you’re allowed to collaborate with the person whose job it is to put your words and story onto the screen. Give the director what he or she needs to make the film and you will be remembered as a vital part of the production. At this point in the process, you’re doing production drafts and the script becomes more of a technical document as everything is about making the script ready for the first day of shooting and beyond. Working with directors will help you become a production savvy screenwriter as you learn the realities of filmmaking, how to stay out of the way of the story, and how not overstep your responsibilities as the screenwriter.

Read it all at SSN Insider