Why We Write

January 21, 2008

Why We Write – Number 24 – Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Vorhis

Number 24

Today’s piece is written by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, Creators and Executive Producers of “Sleeper Cell.”  (Editor’s note: Thus this is the first essay which is truly a “Why WE Write.”)

 

Why do we write?  We swear we are not patronizing you with use of the “Royal” we, for we are in fact a writing TEAM.  Kind of like the New York Yankees or the Cincinnati Reds, only much less successful.  After devoting more than a minute but less than an hour to the question we have arrived at several answers…

First up: we write because of our own AUDIENCE FRUSTRATION.  We both love movies.  We both grew up watching movies constantly.  For better or worse movies for us served much the same purpose as the Code of Hammurabi, the Old Testament, the Constitution of the United States and Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book have served for various constituencies in the history of the world: they were our guidebook for life.  When we got old enough to understand how they got made we wanted to make sure we’d get to see more movies we would enjoy — and sometimes the only way to do that is to write that movie yourself.

About a year ago we sold an original spec screenplay called “Nottingham.”  The simple premise of the story is Robin Hood retold from the Sheriff of Nottingham’s point-of-view, with the Sheriff as the hero rather than the villain.  Why did we write it?  Because one of us grew up loving Robin Hood and the other has a lifelong obsession with Medieval history and we both wanted to see this new version of the classic story for ourselves — the last Robin Hood movie having been the Costner version from over 15 years ago.

The same holds true for television, in terms of our writing growing out of our frustration…

One of us was born and bred in New York, the other lived there for half of his adult life.  After 9/11 we both wanted to somehow turn our personal emotional trauma into something cathartic, maybe even positive — and we were incredibly frustrated by the half-baked, wishy-washy (to quote Charlie Brown) attempts to deal with themes of terrorism and counter-terrorism in the context of popular-culture.  All of which exploded into the creation of our Showtime series “Sleeper Cell” — a show that both of us desperately wanted to see, but was nowhere near the airwaves at the time.

But deep as our audience frustration may be, it probably isn’t the only reason we write.  There are the tender and heartfelt reasons as well.  A few years back we wrote an animated feature for Dreamworks called “Kung Fu Panda.”  We wrote it so that our kids could finally watch something we had written.  The punch-line is that by the time the movie finally comes out this Summer, most of our kids will be too old to want to see it.

There is also the attempt to play God, to create a world almost exactly like this one, populated with characters who are slight variations on people we know, have known or have wished to be.  A world that’s not the Real World but the World As It Should Be — at least in our not-so-humble opinion.

We write to surprise each other, to entertain each other, to make each other laugh or cry, to send each other jumping into the air with excitement over a perfect line, an unexpected plot-twist, a brilliant character insight or an amazing action scene — not to mention in order to frustrate the hell out of each other, push each other’s buttons to the edge of physical violence and drive each other insane.

We write to avoid wearing suits to work on a daily basis.

And last but not least, we write in order to avoid becoming pornographers.

After all, we do live in Los Angeles.

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

January 15, 2008

Why We Write – Number 18: Danny Rubin

Number 18

Today’s piece is written by Danny Rubin, writer of “Groundhog Day.” 

 

I once wrote a screen adaptation – true story – of a novel written by Bill Maher.  Ben Stiller was the would-be director of the film.  The subject matter was Bill’s recollection of his first year as a stand-up comic.  Every part of this project was fantastic and, as I always do before embarking on a writing-for-hire cruise, I vowed not to fuck it up.  I would listen well, be aware, and be worthy.  I would bring this ship to port.  It was the voice of Dan Hedaya running through my head, asserting repeatedly (as he did in Joe versus the Volcano): “I know he can GET the job, but can he DO the job?” 
 


My experience after Groundhog Day was that everybody kept hiring me to write another Groundhog Day.  That’s what they asked for.  And somehow these movies never materialized: the ship wasn’t getting to port.  I seemed to be getting something wrong.  Clearly nobody was asking me to write another trapped-in-time in Pennsylvania story, so what they were asking for, I assumed, was another innovative humanistic comedy with a surprising and unconventional structure.  Bad guess. They in fact really did want another trapped-in-time comedy, or something similar.  It didn’t have to be in Pennsylvania, of course.  We could set this one in, say, Ohio.  Think outside the box, they told me.   
 


Be all that as it may have been, I was determined that my writing on this Bill Maher project would be as normal by Hollywood standards as it could possibly be, no matter how crazy they asked me to make it.  The out-of-the-box strategy was not working well for me, even though that is exactly why I was being hired. Anyway, I took the novel’s jumble of characters, locations and time frames and I straightened it all out.  I gave the script a clear central character and a clear central story that led to a clear climax, and I included as much dialogue and comedy material from Maher’s book as I could. 
 


To skip to the ending: Bill thought my script was too normal.  “Why do you hire the Groundhog Guy to write a script that anybody could have written?”  
 

So, here’s a question: if the summary of my career so far is a repetition of some variation on that sad scenario, then what the heck is the allure?   
 


By the way, True Story is the name of the funny and interesting novel I was adapting.  The title refers to the line frequently spoken by stand-up comics, usually to sucker the audience into the funny lie they are about to be told.   
 


If you think about it, the very phrase “True story” helps in the dramatic process known as “Suspension of disbelief.”  No matter how outrageous the story being told, the audience will go along with it – at least for a while – simply because the narrator has told us it is true.  
 


In a film such as “Groundhog Day,” suspension of disbelief is absolutely crucial.  If the audience is spending the whole movie thinking, “That’s stupid – days don’t repeat like that,” then they will never be able to enjoy the entertainment, to connect to the emotions, and for some, to even conclude that days really DO repeat like that.  None of the clear-ringing truths revealed to many by the movie would be audible were it not for the audience’s original commitment to believing in something impossible.   
 


In order to write the thing, I, too, had to commit to the reality of this unreal world.  How would Phil react to this situation?  How would his life proceed?  I couldn’t look to any research to tell me what would happen.  Facts couldn’t tell me the answer.  Like Luke Skywalker, I had to search my feelings.  To this science-trained east-coast guy, that phrase even now sounds stupid, but that’s what happens when you write a fantasy, or any drama, really.  To search for truth in a world that can’t exist, a person needs to rely on intuition.  What FEELS true?  Writing seems to be a constant search for an inner resonance, a true-ringing singularity.     
 


In Hollywood neither logic nor intuition have served me particularly well.  Luck seems to be the most reliable guiding force, with maybe a modicum of talent and goodwill thrown in.  Figuring out the Byzantine logic involved in pleasing Hollywood is not, believe it or not, the best part about doing this for a living.  Spending my days believing in impossible things and chasing them towards an inner truth, now that’s a pretty good gig.

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

January 14, 2008

Why We Write – Number 17: Hart Hanson

Number 17

Today’s piece is written by Hart Hanson, Creator and Executive Producer of “Bones.”

 

Obviously, I write because something in my psyche went horribly wrong.  You know what I’m talking about.  If I were a healthy, fully-integrated, functional human being I’d explore the ocean floor or build bridges or perform heart-transplants on blue babies.  So would you.

My number one job?  Blimp driver!  C’mon!  Drifting over big cool events waving down at throngs of the earth-bound?  Flying at about the same speed as a wobbly drunk crossing the street?  How sweet would that be?

 

If I ever give therapy a shot, my first question to my imaginary yet insightful therapist will be Hey! Why do I write?  Is it the cliche psychological desire to stand out from the crowd in a very large noisy family?  Or is it something less solipsistic along the lines of a dime-store philosophy which maintains that we are defined by whom we touch, how we touch them and in what numbers?

 

Or are we all simply the sum of our limitations?  I don’t build bridges because I’m afraid of heights?  I don’t pilot a blimp because I’m color blind?  I don’t perform heart-transplants on blue babies because blue baby hearts make me weep? 

 

I do know that writing is one of the three things in my life I’ve put a lot of sweat-equity into.  I don’t mean the la-de-dah moral compulsories like “be-a-good man-husband-son-brother-father-friend.”  I mean palpable, self-serving, pushful, venal pursuits.  For me, aside from writing, the other two such pursuits were music and science.  But something I can tell you categorically about musicians and physicists is that if you spend enough time amongst them you soon discover whether or not you are in their league – whether or not you share the weird magical rhythms of their thinking processes, whether you possess that extra Third-Eye which allows you to envision the building blocks of reality without your head imploding or the Third-Ear which not only hears the Lost Chord but instructs your fingers how to play it on a Fender Telecaster. 

 

For me there was no Third Eye or Third Ear, so ZAP!  Keep moving, nothing to see here.

 

Early on I was determined to spend my life in serious-minded literary writing.  As a result, I write a murder show for network television.  For the Fox network.

 

I don’t need my imaginary therapist to figure out that one — genuine artistes are willing to forego health, love, underarm hygiene, financial security, family, and fun-on-the-weekends to pursue their art and I was never booked to be that guy.  I want my wife to like me and I like clean teeth.  Besides, one of my first rejections from a literary magazine said, “We found much to admire in your piece, especially the punctuation.”

 

The PUNCTUATION!

 

Read between the lines, pal.  Nobody ever praised Thomas Mann or Saul Bellow for their punctuation.  

 

Besides, genuine artists don’t pander to an audience and I always envision you out there … you and your friends along with an extra smattering of acerbic celebrities, historical figures, the Nobel Committee, Stephen Fry, my idiot cousin’s idiot husband, courtesans, my entire high school, and maybe Jimmy Page in the last row.

 

The truth is my main qualification for being a writer is that I am a whiz bang typist.  I burn up the keys, baby!  I will kick your ass typing.  I learned on a Remington unmarked manual typewriter so you sit me down in front of an ergonomic keyboard, well, I’m faster than all those girl celebutards I refuse to differentiate between but you know to whom I’m referring; they have issues with underwear.

 

But all of the above answers the question, “How I Came to Write” which is different from “Why I Write”.

 

I write because I’m totally confused by the world.  I never know what’s going on.  I absolutely never know what absolutely anything absolutely means.  I ask and the good-hearted, intelligent souls around me do their best to explain but I don’t get it.  I don’t get quiddity or science or religion or psychology or why we laugh when people fall down or why people come together or why we drift apart.  I don’t understand my friends or my enemies and I definitely don’t understand time or gravity or mob mentality or Crocs or botox or why people take some other people seriously when they so very, very obviously should not be taken seriously.

 

Writing is a way for me to organize the chaos around me. I can corral bits of the sloppy world into a clean white area measuring 8 ½ x 11 inches, where it is apprehensible.  Then actors and directors and the DP and the crew all explain it back to me on 35 millimeter opaque celluloid squares twenty four times per second  and sometimes — rarely, but sometimes — I go “Oh!” and I don’t wish I were a physicist or a great guitar player or a blimp pilot because for those few fleeting seconds, I understand some small facet of some small thing.

 

And that’s why I write.

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

January 11, 2008

Why We Write – Number 15: Mark Gaberman

Number 15

Today’s piece is written by Mark Gaberman, a writer on “Jeopardy.” 

 

There are 61 blue boxes available to play in one game of “Jeopardy!”.  We make 230 shows a year—that’s 14,030 boxes that 8 of my friends and I have to fill.  I have learned things about Queen Victoria that I never really wanted to know.  Some information about car repair that I have since forgotten.  Morgan Freeman has spoken words in celebrity clues that I wrote for him.

He was God, you know.  At least twice.

I love to fill in those blue boxes.

I’ve had Alex Trebek rap Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”—he had his mind on his money and his money on his mind that day.  Did a category called “Death and Texas” just because I liked the title (and finding stuff about people dying and/or getting killed in Texas turned out to be remarkably easy).  I’ve learned about Jean Sibelius, and word to the wise, if you see “blah blah blah this Finnish composer blah blah blah…”, Jean Sibelius might not be your worst guess.  Well, at least if I wrote it.  I’m just not that up on my Finnish composers.

I think for any writer, there is an indescribable thrill at having your words come to life onscreen.  For the 9 of us, those words are literally on the screen itself for everyone to see.  I’ve been with the show for a decade now—7 years as a writer, I’m one of the newbies—and I still can’t wait to see how my categories will play during that day’s shooting.  I know the others feel the same way about their material, too.  It never gets old.

Until one tanks.

Contrary to what some may believe, we aren’t out to stump the players.  Challenge ‘em to the limit, you bet, but to us, a 3-contestant deadball basically means we failed to get even one of them to where we thought they could go.  Oh, the horror that is the triple stand-and-stare.  The eternity that is the few seconds between the time Alex finishes reading a clue and the head-scratching, how the hell do they expect us to know that? reaction it gets from the contestants.  Then, DOOTDOOTDOOT!  The merciful sound that ends their suffering and then has Alex saying something like, “ooo, sorry, we were going for Slovenia.  Slovenia.  Select!”  Maybe I reached way too far and used Kurt Bevacqua in a clue instead of an easy Babe Ruth, just because I thought it was funny that Tommy Lasorda said Kurt Bevacqua couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a bleeping boat.  Or perhaps these 3 particular players weren’t quite ready for an entire category of “to Heloise and back”.  Another 3 might have been all over it.  Luck of the draw there.  Or maybe they just never knew that Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby”.

Nah, they should’ve known that.  That one would probably just make me mad.

That, however, is the beauty of our game.  I get just as floored as anyone who watches the show if that butcher from Boise knows that obscure fact I discovered about Pushkin.  Baffled if that insurance agent from Des Moines doesn’t know Lincoln was president during the Civil War.  Positively mind-boggled when that lawyer from Pensacola doesn’t put enough on a Daily Double with an opportunity to go ahead, late in the game (you’d be amazed how often betting like that happens.  Trust yourselves, folks!  No guts, no “Jeopardy!” glory!).  But the fact that I helped create all that…it’s a feeling I really miss, and one that I look forward to experiencing again soon.

I love to go to work each day.  To see my friends.  To learn something new.  To try and be creative and contribute to something a lot of people seem to enjoy.  To actually get paid to do it. 

I love to fill in those blue boxes.

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

January 10, 2008

Why We Write – Number 14: Iris Yamashita

Number 14

Today’s piece is written by Iris Yamashita, who wrote “Letters From Iwo Jima.” 

 

It began, I suppose because my own life was so boring compared to the imaginary characters that I could create.  

In my first diary, I wrote snippets about these made-up people.  There was Elizabeth who was five and whose favorite subject in school was finger painting.  The climax of her life story was seeing two dead cats in the ditch by the school yard.  There was Lynnete Bumble, who “usually heard voices in her mind.”  And then there was the Duster family.  Mr. Duster worked at a newspaper business and had all of five dollars to spend on a nice, warm blanket for Christmas.  Yup, that’s all the Duster family got, because in my make believe world, writers were almost beggars.  But at least they had romantic families that didn’t complain and were ecstatic about a blanket.  Well, maybe I got the first part right. 

In Junior High, I suppose I still preferred my imaginary worlds to my mundane reality.  I was living in Guam at the time where we had something like three channels of television, one movie theater and our major source of excitement was when a typhoon hit the island.  I decided to spruce up our vocabulary exercises.  Each week, we were supposed to form a sentence with our newly learned set of words—imminent, daunted, anguish, etc.  I started a weekly installment about Allanon, leader of the gods and goddesses with different super powers who were battling the forces of evil in the approaching Apocalypse when the dead zombies were to rise from the ground. “Allanon was daunted by the prospect of the battle with the evil forces.  He looked out the window with anguish.  The attack by the army of corpses would be imminent.”

It was also about this time that I discovered that I could make my classmates cry by writing a sappy story about two school chums.  One was a trouble-maker and one was a violin virtuoso.  They become an unlikely pair of friends until one succumbs to cancer.  When my teacher spent an entire class period reading it aloud, I heard sniffles around the room and it was one of the most exhilarating feelings I had ever had.  I was hooked. 

By the time I got to college, however, my Asian practicality and no-nonsense parents brought me back to my childhood philosophy that choosing a life of a writer was choosing the life of a pauper.  To make a long story short, I took a long, circuitous route of a career in engineering and web programming and tortuous beginnings of novels that were never completed before I ventured into the medium of the screenplay.  

It was always there–the magic of the cinema.  But it just took me longer to discover it.  The combination of lights, images, music, and of course words, when orchestrated together was a kind of poetry.  It had the power to move, to feel, to change, to evoke, to be beautiful, to be ugly and even to be beautiful and ugly at the same time.  While books are personal, movies are shared—a group of people in a single room laughing at the same joke, crying at the same scene, being frightened at the same crescendo.  This was truly poetic.

Today, I have thrown the Asian practicality out the window and make my hobby my profession.  I am not yet a pauper (of course that may change with the strike), but my life is still not as interesting as those of my imaginary characters and I still get a thrill out of making other people cry.

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

January 9, 2008

Why We Write – Number 13: James Duff

Number 13

Today’s piece is written by James Duff, Creator and Executive Producer of “The Closer.”

 

When is it no longer possible to forgive?  How do we balance the constant tension between idealism and pragmatism?  And, most importantly, what does it mean to be human?  Happily, it is not my responsibility to answer these questions, but merely frame them within a dramatic structure where they might be entertainingly examined.  And there’s no subject, theme or plot about which I cannot mount a rigorous, fictional inquiry.

For example, let’s say I propose a story about a guild of screenwriters struggling to maintain their rights and royalties against several multi-national conglomerates.  This original idea came to me – entirely out of the blue – while I was picketing Raleigh Studios in Hollywood.  My make-believe Guild of Writers would be a difficult organization to keep united: its members, valued for their ability to articulate individual points of view, would probably be competitive and insular; getting them to act in concert would be more complicated than assimilating every solo vocalist around the world into one happy choir (imagine a Jewish-Islamic glee club practicing “Away in a Manger”).  In order to create an event that could believably draw so many diverse artists together, I must introduce a galvanizing threat transcending their individual interests.  Perhaps a New Media Platform, a sort of sci-fi distribution system that would eventually gain prevalence over television networks and (maybe even) movie theatres, entirely dispensing with format and schedules, might do the trick.  The Guild would apprehend this New Media Platform with curiosity and wonder.

For story purposes, I will array against my heroic Guild several corporate CEOs who control the old means of media distribution; the enormous profitability of their entertainment divisions will depend on a combination of rapidly decaying business models and secretive (legally dubious) accounting.  The quick establishment of this sci-fi New Media Platform will alarm the conglomerates and the moguls who lead them; it will threaten their monopoly on the distribution of filmed entertainment.

I shall make sure that several of the multi-national corporations are led by CEOs who understand that the Internet – whoops, I mean the New Media Platform – does not bode well for the future valuation of their entertainment divisions; they will be desperate to protect and expand their libraries before they begin competing with…well, everyone.  I will pit these dark visionaries not only against the writers, but also against many of their fellow CEOS, some of whom, in an attempt to justify their greed, have developed the bizarre principle that writers deserve no royalties or residuals for reuse of their work, or any underlying rights to their own material.  Maybe there will be only one or two moguls who actually subscribe to this completely fatuous idea, but we shall impose on the conglomerates the Rule of Unanimity, which requires all media companies – good, bad and morally indifferent – to agree on every single point of every contested issue before a settlement can be reached.  This nefarious concept – the Rule of Unanimity (doesn’t it sound totally sci-fi?) – will mean that only one person, all on their lonesome, can derail an entire industry.  I shall also have the media moguls offer the writers “A New Economic Partnership.”  Announced with the artless gravity of museum guides, this so-called proposal shall resemble less a business plan than the prenuptial agreement from Elizabeth Taylor’s last marriage, revealing exactly what the bloated CEOs would like to do to the scribes (having successfully done it to writers for generations) while unconsciously signaling how these entitled executives evaluate their own diminishing allure.

Will The Guild accede to these unreasonable demands?  And surrender all participation in the future success of their work?  And proceed to the New Media Platform without recognition of their rights, royalties or basic minimum contracts?  Never!  Its members will stop writing; they will be unified in their overall goal, which will be jurisdiction over, and revenues from, this revolutionary distribution system.  But The Guild will be alone.  Other unions will either be unable to come to their aid, take positions that are outright against them or have paid a great deal of money to reassure themselves that the sci-fi distribution system is too far in the future to matter much.  

How will the story end?  That’s another great thing about being a writer.  As long as the conclusion remains consistent with the characters and the underlying theme, I can resolve the plot any way I like.  For example, maybe the CEOs will negotiate a new template with directors instead of writers.  Maybe the entertainment divisions of these giant conglomerates will collapse beneath the weight of their own unnecessary infrastructure.  Maybe the Guild will splinter and dissolve, ending unions in the studio workplace.  Or, in an unexpected twist, the sci-fi Media Platform will develop much faster than anticipated leaving writers and executives alike stranded in a Brave New Entertainment World, although (if you don’t count what film did to theatre, and what radio did to live music, and what television did to radio, and what iTunes and Napster did to the recording industry) this sort of thing has never happened before. 

However I finish off the narrative, I must seriously consider what my chief collaborators – the actors – are willing to play.  If I fail to interest “the players”, they will pass on my story in the not unnatural hope that better parts will come along.  And I’ll have to start all over again sometime in the distant future.  Like June.

But whether I find an audience, or my completely original story ever gets produced, I have still applied myself to an inquiry that deeply engages me.  With any luck, I will find an audience willing to entertain the same question, and join me on my journey of discovery.  And (in addition to the money and the lack of any other marketable skill this side of a bar) that’s why I write!

  

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers during the strike, and perhaps beyond.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

December 28, 2007

Reader submissions are coming!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charlie Craig @ 2:16 am
Tags: , ,

When we first conceived of this campaign it was as a three-week-and-out blog, something to get our tired and frustrated Guild members through the non-picketing “holiday” weeks.  In the back of our minds we told ourselves that if anyone actually LIKED the blog we’d keep it up longer, but we weren’t really thinking along those lines.

We are now.  The response to WHY WE WRITE has been extremely enthusiastic – even better, it’s been almost uniformly positive – so we’ve decided we should keep the blog going as long as we can.  And that’s where you come in.

Starting this Saturday – and on every subsequent Friday in non-holiday weeks – WHY WE WRITE will feature a reader-generated essay. We’ve received a lot of them from you so far, and we ask that you keep on submitting.  Of course, there’s no guarantee your essay will get posted – we reserve the right to like or not like them, to find them appropriate or not, and to edit them for length if we DO like them (aim for two pages) – but, hey, it’s a shot.  As we said in our first post, we’d love to hear what you’re thinking, what has led you to write.  We are, after all, members of the same community, regardless of whether we make a living from our words or just want to.

So: on Saturday, the first essay from YOU.  In subsequent weeks, your words will appear on Fridays so that we can take the weekend off (hey, don’t forget, we have to picket)!  We’re very excited by this new chapter of WHY WE WRITE.  We hope you are, too.

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