Peggy Bechko Ponders ‘High Concept’

  by Peggy Bechko

This is a whole ‘nuther kind of high concept, yeah, Rihanna?

If you write for the screen you’ve no doubt pondered the High Concept, what the heck it is, and how you can spur your latest creative endeavor into being that High Concept.

Why?

Because high concept by definition appeals to a wide audience and we all want that, right? If not all of the time, then at least some of the time because after all, in appealing to that wide audience the concept must be unique and fascinating. I’d venture to say that means you’re being creative and original. It also means great box-office potential. That’s a key ingredient to spurring a successful screenwriting career. All that’s good!

So, what does that mean for the writer? Simply put, the High Concept script needs a universal theme. You know, the great escape, or a family flick, or love, greed or vengeance. You get the drift. But the writer also needs to throw in that much sought after twist that turns a character or an action on its head or some other body part, thrusting the observer into the unexpected. Surprise! We all love to be surprised.

One way to push your basic idea into the High Concept arena is that old fall-back question, “what if”.

Here are a couple of examples:

What if the bank vault being robbed turned out to be a portal to another dimension from which the wealth in that bank came and into which????

What if the guy who gets stabbed and dies didn’t know it but turns out to be immortal? (remember that one?).

What if a hurricane was just the beginning of a chain reaction that circled the globe with monumental disasters…and it was triggered by one man? What if that man was not human? What if that man wasn’t human?

And on and on…

Additionally, think about working with a concept that fascinates you. It’s only natural to be more excited, more involved with ideas that you just can’t learn enough about or use that ‘what if’ question enough on.

All this applies to TV as well. Want to sell that series idea? Then go for the High Concept. How about the new show Midnight Texas? Think about it. Midnight Texas: The welcome mat’s out for supernaturals. If you’re a vampire, a werebeast or see ghosts, this town’s for you.

That’s just my take on it off the top of my head.

Okay, so now you, as the stunning writer you are, have to come up with a great title. One or two words are really best. I mean, think about it. Jaws, Alien, Die Hard, Twister, Sharknado (LOL) and my TV example Midnight Texas …all very short titles. Very punchy and very clearly tell what the story is about.

Oh, and after all that, remember the High Concept idea needs to be pitched in one sentence. If fact, if you’ve come up with a true High Concept, that will allow the idea to be couched in one sentence. Notice the one I came up with above for Midnight Texas the TV show.

How about The Martian: Help is only 140 million miles away. Or The Martian: He was left behind…on Mars.

Or Passengers (again off the top of my head): He fixes things and she’s a writer in stasis on a ship to the stars. There is a reason they woke up.

If you’re going to take a run at writing High Concept you have to have it clear in your mind what it is. It must be strong, original, captivating and if it is that means money for producers and studios and, best case scenario, you.

This has been just a teaser, a hint at what you’re looking at. Want more? Check out other posts here on TV Writer – and do some more research until you’re confident in your High Concept ideas and the loglines you create for them.


Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her sensational career HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.

Bri Castellini: Directors, What Do You Do Again? – @brisworld

Some film director doing something the unions don’t allow

by Bri Castellini

Hello, and welcome to “What Do You Do Again?” a series of posts profiling different film production roles because many in the web series community don’t come from film school and don’t really know who all makes up a bustling film set. I certainly didn’t; in fact, for the longest time I thought a producer and a director were the same. And to be honest, I still don’t really know what the heck a gaffer is. Apparently it’s not Samwise Gamgee, which comes as a bit of a disappointment.

Every week, I’ll pick one production role to profile, so without further ado:

What does a director do? Lightning round:

  1. Works with and is in charge of all cast and crew to tell the story.
  2. Is ultimately responsible for getting the different shots and scenes needed to complete the project.
  3. Gets to say “action” and “cut.”

Misconceptions:

The director is solely in charge of the shot list, or every angle the camera needs to film the scenes from. In fact, as with most parts of a director’s job, the shot list is a collaboration between the director and the director of photography (DP). While having an idea of what you want a scene to look like is important, the DP will be able to guide the director towards particular shots to make the best version of the project possible.

The director tells the actors how to say their lines. While some directors will have their own process, in general, it is not the director’s job to tell an actor the exact cadence and performance of the scene, or giving them a “line reading.” An actor is not a puppet, and a director is not putting an Imperius Curse on them. Actors are there to perform, to breathe life into a scene and a story, and their interpretation of a scene and a character is a vital part of the process, just as a DP is a vital part of building a shot list.

Jamie McKeller @redshirtjamie , creator of the show I Am Tim Helsing1, has a lot of feelings about this particular directing style. “From the point of view of a director, if I’m not happy with a performance from one of the cast it’s my job to collaborate and discuss until everything clicks. If a director gets to a point where they’re acting it out, they’ve failed. Also, the actor likely can’t emulate what the director so the performance is no longer their own, but a replica of somebody else’s interpretation.”

Actress Gilda Sue Rosenstern agrees, adding “Filmmaking and [theater] are collaborative, they are not dictatorships like novel-writing.”

We actually have a whole article about line readings, with alternative directing tricks to try instead, so check that out here.

The director runs the set. This is a half misconception, because they’re only really in charge once the cameras start rolling. It’s generally not the director’s job to corral actors, to make sure the lights are being set up, to keep time, or to make sure that craft services have arrived. The non-creative logistics of a set are left to a production manager and the assistant director, both roles of which we’ll cover in another article.

Common mistakes:

Having all the answers. This might seem counter-intuitive, but let me explain. As we’ve already established, while a director is absolutely the captain of the ship during filming, their job is made possible through effective communication and collaboration. One of the best ways to win the good faith of the cast and crew is to ask for input and give them the space they need to make their own choices, especially in areas where you’re less confident, and. If a choice isn’t what you’re looking for, a director can step in and make adjustments, but in general, if the director has all the answers, they aren’t leaving enough up to the rest of their cast and crew, and they’re also a liar, because no one has all the answers. “Don’t let insecurity or ego prevent you from taking good ideas and growing as an artist,” adds Andrew Williams, director of Brains and nearly a decade of other film and theater projects.

Openly getting frustrated. Alternatively: spreading gossip, complaining to cast and crew about other cast and crew, or letting on that something has gone wrong. Essentially, the director’s mood is the mood of the set, and if the mood of the set is anything other than “productive and excited,” you have trouble. There is nothing more uncomfortable than a bunch of people stuck in a small room with lots of expensive equipment and a hostile scent in the air. “People will do better work for you faster if they feel safe and energized about the project.” Andrew agrees.

Making it about you. Remember why you’re there. “I think a lot of young directors feel the need to cover every inch of a finished product with their fingerprints,” says Andrew Williams. “If the visual metaphors, artsy camera angles, and 38 minute tracking shots help tell the story to its fullest, then go for it. If you’re doing it to show off how good of a director you are, then you’re not making art, you’re making a reel.”

Showing up unprepared. Sometimes, this mistake manifests in not being involved enough in pre-production. While a lot of the logistical planning isn’t exactly a director’s purview (finding locations, for example), they should still be involved. Additionally, a director should have an idea of what they want, from a performance perspective, before arriving on set, and should be able to communicate effectively.

How can I learn to be a director?

When I was planning my directorial debut, after being just an actor, writer, and producer, Andrew Williams loaned me his copy of Notes On Directing by Frank Hauser and Russell Reich, which proved vital. Though the book is written with theater in mind, most of the concepts, all of which are numbered and concise, are applicable to film, and all of them are applicable to getting used to the idea of calling yourself a director.

You are the obstetrician.

You are not the parent of this child we call the play. You are present at its birth for clinical reasons, like a doctor or a midwife. Your job most of the time is simply to do no harm. When something does go wrong, however, your awareness that something is awry —and your clinical intervention to correct it —can determine whether the child will thrive or suffer, live or die.”

-Notes on Directing

Another way to learn directing is to simply watch other directors, and watch a variety of them if possible, with a variety of different backgrounds and trainings. Some of the best tricks I learned for my own directing came from observing other directors. If you can’t find any sets to shadow, watch behind-the-scenes footage or interviews.

Final Thoughts

The director is ultimately responsible for what gets filmed and making creative decisions on set, but they are, at their core, just another member of the team. Who are some of your favorite directors? Let us know in the comments, and if you’ve been on a set with a particularly amazing (or particularly bad) director, we’d love to hear the story!


Bri Castellini is an indie filmmaker and Community Liaison at Stareable, our favorite web series hub. This article was originally published on the Stareable Community Forum. Watch Bri’s award-winning web series, BrainsHERE!

John Ostrander: The Family of Sociopaths

This gallery contains 4 photos.

by John Ostrander Commercials are the point of commercial TV. I realize that, for those of you who do only streaming services, this concept may seem a bit foreign, but your monthly fees take the place of paid commercials, assuming the streaming service isn’t double-dipping. Advertisers buy time to pitch products and/or services and/or whatever […]

Carlton Cuse on What He’s Learned Since ‘Lost’

Step right up, ladies and gents, for a good, long look into a showrunner’s mind. And you thought you were obsessed?

THE STRAIN

by Ben Travers

Carlton Cuse knows how to end a TV show. Before co-writing the last episode of Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s apocalyptic vampire story, “The Strain,” the showrunner and executive producer had already written four series finales. Four!

In 2000, Cuse penned “Final Conflict” Part 1 and Part 2 for the CBS action drama “Martial Law.” A year later, he wrote the ending to his breakthrough broadcast series, “Nash Bridges.” Then came the landmark finale of “Lost” in 2010 and, earlier this year, he dimmed the vacancy sign at the “Bates Motel” in a beautiful closing chapter.

Next up, as “The Strain” wraps up on Sunday, September 17, Cuse said he knew exactly how to end it.

“I think that to end a show, you have to really look at what your show is fundamentally about and then figure out your ending from that,” Cuse told IndieWire. “In the case of ‘The Strain,’ it’s a graphic novel epidemiological thriller. I think we view it as a wonderful popcorn movie experience: There is a clear force of antagonism, this Master — a vampiric parasitic creature — and there are a bunch of protagonists that are trying to do him in.

“I think that the fair and right ending to ‘The Strain’ is one that gives you a real sense of what the ultimate fate of these characters are and ultimately resolves the conflict between a clear force of antagonism and a clear force of protagonism.”

Not every show necessitates a showdown between good and evil. Some are more complicated, including one of the most hotly debated series finales ever.

“Certainly when Damon [Lindelof] and I wrote the ending for ‘Lost,’ we felt like there was no version where we could answer all of the mystery questions without feeling didactic and unsatisfying,” he said. “The attempt to answer those questions would ultimately just lead to more questions. What we felt was important was to provide a character resolution to explain what happened to them and to provide them with a sense of emotional closure.”

A lot has changed since “Lost” ended, including the very system that led to all those questions stacking up. Prestige drama projects have been snatched up by cable and streaming outlets, which allow for shorter seasons and less seasons overall. (Both length-related issues were regular sticking points for Cuse and Lindelof when negotiating with ABC.)

Such shifts in how television is made emphasize the importance of Cuse’s experience writing finales: He’s done it under the harshest conditions as well as the most idyllic.

Back when “Lost” was made, Cuse describes the network television mentality “like the pony express: you rode the horse until it dropped dead from underneath you… The idea that we made 24 hours in the first season, 23 the second, and 22 in the third, I mean it’s just… In an era of orders of eight [episodes per season], it’s kind of incomprehensible….”

Read it all at Indiewire

Facing My Fears

by Marc Alan Fishman

NOTE FROM LB: On one level, this is an article about writing and selling indie comics. But when I read this beautiful piece in ComicMix last weekend it communicated to me on a whole other level. I think that one of the lessons all creatives learn as they grow up is how much courage it takes just to be ourselves.

In this piece, Unshaven Comics’ Marc Alan Fishman not only faces his – and our – eternal dilemma, he also gives us a wonderful trick for overcoming. A great read for everyone:


Unshaven Comics’ trek to Hotlanta for the annual Dragon Con had me face down several fears all at once. As Unshaven Matt Wright was sidelined due to a babysitting emergency, the biggest fear for me was knowing that our terrific trio was reduced to a dingy duo. Beyond that, there was the continual fear that our little shtick will finally reach the point that it doesn’t garner the excitement we count on to close sales. Add that ennui to the more concrete fear that a ten-hour trip in the car while completing the Whole 30 diet – one that forced me to give up everything but lean protein, fruits and vegetables – would make what is normally a doabledrive become something more akin to the trek undertaken by a ragtag fellowship of adventurers trying to ditch a silly ring.

Backup just a wee bit further and I was dealing with the fear of finishing our comic. In what was our second year without a new book to bring out to shows, the creeping horror of attending a show yet again without anything new to our names had forced me to use vacation time from my day job – and then working 12 hours a day to ensure we limped across the finish line. But once production was done on the digital end? Well, then came all the tiny nightmares: getting gigs of data over to our printer intact, checking proofs, correcting errors, and then awaiting the full order for Atlanta to be printed, cut, and stapled.

For the last five years or so my comic series The Samurnauts has been a comfortable and fruitful universe to play in. The rules had been well defined by myself and my Unshaven cohorts. Our stories had been written and everything stayed right in my wheelhouse. That house, you ask? Taking those things I loved growing up, and putting a new twist on them to produce something that kids would enjoy, but adults could appreciate the layers built below the surface of the shiny comic action. But Mine! is a beast far outside the realm of immortal Kung-Fu monkeys and zombie-cyborg space pirates.

So there I sat with the blank screen blinding me. No collaborator to bounce ideas off of. A deadline perilously perched at the precipice of my palms. And no alliterative allegories alerting me to an able-bodied antiphon. If Sinestro were real? I could charge his ring from the sweat forming on my brow. Here, with this opportunity to be a part of a book alongside living legends (too many to mention), did I actually have a leg to stand on… or was I destined to tuck my tail between my legs and just scamper off to make some toys tussle with one-another.

In all of these situations, I am lucky now to be a father. To see in my two sons how fear (and the reaction to it) molds who we are. Be it my younger, Colton, timid and terrified of a two-foot tall Domo I was making wave, or my older, Bennett, scared to even open his mouth for a patient dental hygienist. In both of them, I see myself. Scared, and frozen as I try to check-down the possibilities. Would Unshaven Comics not sell well? Would Samurnautssimply remain forever incomplete? Would I have an original idea to sit in the same book with the likes of Mark Waid, Neil Gaiman, John Ostrander, or Brian Azzarello…?

Read it all at ComicMix

Larry Brody: TVWriter University Fall 2017 Update

by Larry Brody

It rained last night, the slow, easy, beautiful rain that’s a big part of what makes the Pacific Northwest so wonderful. This is the first real sign of Fall here at TVWriter™ Central and a sign that it’s time to plunge right into action with new classes.

So here’s what’s happening:

LARRY BRODY’S MASTER CLASS

The 33rd Master Class, AKA The Class for Pro Level Writers Who Firmly Believe They Don’t Need No Steenkin’ Classes begins next week, AKA Thursday, Sept. 28th.

The Master Class is held entirely online. It’s the one where we start off by reading the completed first draft of your current passion (or paid) project and then take it through 4 weeks of revisions to give you all the help we can to make this your career best.

The absolute max number of students for the Master Class is 3, and 2 places are still open. If you think you qualify and will have a finished first draft of your latest literary child for us to work with by Sept. 28th, let me know, ASAP, via email HERE.

For more info about the Master Class the place to visit is HERE

TVWRITER™ ONLINE TV & FILM WRITING WORKSHOP

Our 167th Online Workshop will start Wednesday, Sept. 27th.

Most students in this, our most popular offering, return time after time, but as of this writing 2 places remain in this class of 5.

The Online Workshop is the one tailored specifically for each member. If you’re new to TV or film writing we bring you through the basics via weekly assignments until you’re ready to run with a full teleplay or screenplay of your own. If you know your way around the format, then the class is all about uploading 10 pages a week for your classmates and me read and discuss and give you insight into what can make the delicious goodness of your work even tastier.

More info about the Advanced Workshop is HERE

It’s always a joy for me to work with fresh, eager new writers. I’m more than happy to answer any Online Workshop questions HERE

LYMI, LB

David Perlis: FIND YOUR STORY

Found on the Interwebs

by David Perlis

And stick to it.

That’s the moral, and it’s what I’m trying to remind myself as I move forward on my new project. These things always sound easy, but without a Post-It on every surface of your abode, reminding you what your story’s heart is, you may find yourself with great plot and great characters, but they’re bound to fizzle out at some point. That’s what I think, anyway.

I like examining Breaking Bad. (By the way, my exhibits are almost always Breaking Bad. It just works, man.)

Breaking Bad sets you up with some pretty brilliant stakes: terminal cancer on one end, and the threat of prison on the other. Not a lot of wiggle room for good things to happen here. But how Vince Gilligan and his writers deal with the cancer part is what I find really interesting. Do they give Walt life scare after life scare with his diagnosis? Do they bring in his ex girlfriend whom he left at the altar to be his head doc? Accidentally give him an infected blood transfusion, or mix his chart up with someone else’s? Does Walt have an allergic reaction to the meds, which leaves him in a wheelchair? I admit, all of these things sound a bit “jump-the-sharky,” but they would definitely ratchet up the drama.

Nope. Instead, they hardly address the cancer at all. Sure, a few scenes in the early episodes, ’cause you can’t not talk about it, but the writers (being pros) knew what this show was—and more importantly, wasn’t—about.

It’s about reaching the breaking point. It’s about our ability to justify the unjustifiable. It’s about doing the wrong things for the right reasons. It’s about our need to be important. To be respected. To be good. It’s about every man being capable of absolute evil. It’s about “turning Mr. Chips into Scarface.” (Which was how Mr. G. always pitched it.) It’s not about overcoming cancer. Walt’s diagnosis in ep. 1 was a great catalyst for morphing him into Heisenberg, but that’s all it ever needed to be.

Now, if you were in Breaking Bad’s writer’s room, would you have intuitively left the cancer thread by the side of the road way back when? I know I wouldn’t have. Long story short: That, Mom, is is why I’ve got “Ignore the cancer” Post-Its papering my toilet tank.


David Perlis is a screenwriter and former People’s Pilot Finalist doing his best to break into the even Bigger Time. This post first appeared on his very helpful blog.