Making Stuff

I moved to Los Angeles in 2001, and began making a living as a screenwriter a year and a half later. Got my first movie made in 2006, my second movie in 2009. All in all, I’d spent about a decade making a living as a screenwriter with two produced credits to show for it, something I am VERY proud of.

Getting any movie made is an impossible journey. Movies are expensive. They’re hard to get right.  At the executive level, a sure-fire way to lose your job is to say “yes” to a movie that doesn’t do well. Only slightly less dangerous is to say “no” to a movie that does great for another studio. What this reinforces is a culture of “maybe”. As in, maybe they’ll read it, maybe they’ll pass it up to their boss, maybe they’ll buy it, maybe they’ll hire a director, maybe maybe maybe. It can be maddening, which is why, whenever something actually gets MADE, when enough maybes are dodged, when enough people say yes, it’s a flat-out miracle.

In 2011, I wrote my first spec TV pilot which, in a crazy round-about way, led to my first job in TV, as a story editor for one of my favorite shows WHITE COLLAR. The best thing about this gig was getting to work with a warm, funny, ultra-talented team of writers who know a hell of a lot about writing television. So all the time, I would ask them a gazillion questions about TV. In return, they would ask me questions about the feature world. I could write many blogs (and probably will) on the differences between writing TV and writing movies. But far and away, the most important difference between the two worlds is simple: the movie industry doesn’t seem like it really wants to make stuff, while in television, they TOTALLY want to make stuff.

Once a show is picked up and put on the air, the clock starts ticking. Episodes must be written, re-written, put through the ringer of notes, rewritten again, shot, edited, all because on a particular day at a certain time, SOMETHING has gotta be on those airwaves. It is a stunning difference. Features are a culture of maybe, while television is a culture of YES, C’MON, LET’S MOVE, FASTER! Now this kind of schedule creates it’s own craziness but compared to the “hurry up and wait” mentality of features, it’s a dream.

I started in the WHITE COLLAR writers room a few weeks late, and show-creator Jeff Eastin and his writers were already well on their way to “breaking” the season. But there was still plenty to do. I worked with the other writers breaking story, writing outlines, reading and giving notes on drafts. But late in the season, I got a surprise. I was assigned an episode to co-write with the excellent Matt Negrete. And that episode, titled “Shoot the Moon”, airs this coming Tuesday night, February 19th, on the USA network.

So in February 2012, I started working in television, and one year later, I have my first produced credit on the air. That fast of a turnaround is a dream for a writer who spent ten years working in the land of maybes.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love movies and want to make them. But there are things to love about TV, and number one on the list: television is all about getting stuff made. And this Tuesday, I can proudly say…I helped make some stuff. Check it out if you can.

5 thoughts on “Making Stuff

  1. Geri Elsasser

    Hi Bob. This was a great tutorial. I’ve often thought about the differences between TV and film, and writing for TV vs. film. I’ve always thought, as you seem to, that writing for TV is in many ways superior to trying to write a movie. A screenplay is a lonely soldier on the battlefield, starting out with no weapons and, unless you’re a Ben Affleck, no other soldiers who’ve got your back. A teleplay for an existing show has two advantages: First, characters and basic plot structure are already in place, and second, it needs material, since the show is already financed and everyone is anxious to get started. The soldier has weapons and his fellow soldiers are raring to go and do battle. As you say, “they TOTALLY want to make stuff.”

    I niavely wrote five teleplays for “White Collar” on my own, using the assumption that if they need stuff, I’ve already written some. (Without the back story, of course, since I had no way of knowing how that would evolve.) I guess I couldn’t be any dumber. I never dreamed that I couldn’t get anyone to read anything I wrote. That said, if Jeff Eastin is with you all in the writers’ room, I have two thoughts, well, questions, which I hope you might share with him at an opportune moment. 1) Now that Channing Powell has left (a real loss I feel, since she wrote some great scripts) does Jeff think a few more women writers might be useful? Although he may not want to admit it, White Collar is one of the few crime shows on TV that women like to watch. Some may think that’s because Matt Bomer is in it, but that’s only partially true. White Collar has humor, great characters that care about each other, and less blood and body parts flying around. Women like that. So do more intelligent men for that matter, e.g., Bill Clinton, who claims to watch it. 2) Does Jeff think it would be advantageous to have a writer or two based in New York City, since the show is filmed here? The plots for all five of my scripts came from inspiration while walking around Manhattan and viewing iconic structures, none of which, by the way, have been written about yet, on any TV show to my knowledge. The beat and pace of NYC is different from LA. Living in LA and trying to write about NY is like living in the South Seas and trying to write about the North Pole.

    I love your blog; appreciate your insight and interest in other writers. Good luck with tonight’s episode. I will watch with all best thoughts.

    Reply
  2. bobderosa Post author

    Geri, you have too many thoughts to address! It would take a whole blog to cover it all. A few quick thoughts, and this is totally my opinion. Having writers on opposite coasts is detrimental to the most important part of writing for a TV show, the writer’s room. Having everyone together, building off of each other’s energy and ideas, is what makes television truly great. But at the end of the day, the writers room and the people in it are there for one reason and that’s to serve the vision of the showrunner. That’s why sample scripts are almost never bought and used by existing TV shows. Fans can create interesting stories for an existing show but the only way to really serve a showrunner’s vision is to be in that room. And the way to get in that room is with an outstanding sample or two, industry fans, and a lot of luck.

    Reply
  3. Ceil Kessler

    Bob, great show, I really enjoyed it! Congrats on your first TV writing credit, and have fun making stuff! I reviewed the episode on smallscreenscoop.com and tweeted you the link earlier (FYI, I included a link to this blog post as well). It was a really enjoyable episode! One day, you’ll have to secretly tell me if all of my evil plot theories are correct!

    So glad you’re part of the writer’s room for WC! Looking forward to more of your work!

    Reply

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