Monday, August 27, 2007

Pilot Reboot (and/or the return of the Dexter spec)

Months ago when Jul and I entered our pilot in PAGE, we paid the extra money for a few pages of notes. A while back we learned that we made the quarterfinals, then did not make the semifinals, and since then I'd kind of forgotten about the notes and PAGE in general. Which is basically a lot of set up to tell you that we finally got those few pages of notes emailed to us this weekend.

Notes are very interesting things. As a writer you always say you want them, and you sort of kind of do, because at the very least that means they read your work - or it makes it a lot easier to tell if they didn't read it. And notes during the first few drafts are extremely valuable. I would never recommend that a writer submit a script to a contest or (even worse) a professional contact until it's been read by several trusted people and revised.

But. To state the obvious, notes are never to be taken blindly. We were once given notes by a professional development guy who told us to shorten our one-hour pilot script from around 60 pages to 40-45. And though I'm sure most of you are already laughing or pulling at your hair and screeching, "What?!" I'll make this crystal clear for everyone else: No one-hour show, with the minutest of exceptions, would ever be 40-45 pages. Maybe, for some action-heavy shows, you might hover around 50, but that's pretty much the lowest I would ever attempt. Most shows are around 60 pages, and some super-talky shows are routinely around 70 (think Gilmore Girls). Our fairly talky dramatic-comedy clocked in at what I consider a respectable 65. So, to recap: Know your stuff before you implement any notes you're given.

The opposite happens as well. Some people have a knack for only really good notes. Sometimes they're big, sometimes small, but everything they say makes you wonder why the hell you didn't think of that. Over a year ago, Jul and I pretty much shelved an Earl spec because someone gave us an incredibly valid note that seemed too taxing to implement. I'd say we're lazy except that's really only half the reason; since then we've only written one-hour scripts, so going back and doing a sitcom when we really have no intention of writing for a sitcom seemed like a waste of time.

Then there are the in-between notes, which I think aptly describes what we received from PAGE. The person who wrote the notes didn't say this straight out, but pretty much seemed to be digging the script and loving the dialogue and characters...right up until they reached a point in our script where a controversial subject rears its head. This is a subject that immediately causes strong reactions, and I think that it made our reader shut down.

It probably sounds pretty presumptuous guessing at the reader's mindset, but the tone of the review completely changes after this subject comes up. Early on, our main character is described as uber-dorky, but also extremely likable. The dialogue and character interaction is praised. The mood and tone really hold things together. Etc, etc. Then, after the controversial subject comes up, not only does the plot fall apart, according to the reader, but apparently our main character is now too dorky from the get-go and our once-great secondary characters with great interaction and all, are not developed enough and so on and so forth. I'm not saying I couldn't be wrong, and I'm definitely acting protective of our script, but it really does seem like this one subject tore the whole structure down.

Not that I don't understand. I might have even done it myself, had someone else given me this script to read. And partially, that's why we used this controversial subject; without question, it is what has gotten the biggest reaction from everyone who has read the script, whether they loved it or had issues with it. In other words: It caught people's attention. Something that I think is pretty important since the show itself is pretty low concept and mostly character-driven. But still...

What the review has given us is food for thought: Now that several people have had a negative reaction to this one element, is it worth keeping it in to get attention?

I think it is. We've worked out a way to make the resolution a little clearer (I think), which will hopefully make it more palatable for those who take issue with the topic itself. Even better, I think we've found a way to keep the bite of the controversial subject in the story while just making the ending a tiny bit more conventional. I hope.

Interestingly, what the review did make us think is that maybe this story isn't what the first episode should be about. For now, we're just going to tweak it and keep it as-is, but we realized that we set up this conflict in the very beginning between three characters and then completely move away from that conflict because of the other plotlines. Boo! So now we're going to explore that conflict. Yay! Except that we don't yet have a plotline ready where the conflict can settle neatly onto it. Boo!

Rewrites make kittens cry (not to mention possibly kill trees, if you have to edit on actual paper).

So for now we're making the small change and moving back to our Dexter spec. We found a way to connect the two Dexter ideas we'd been playing around with a few months ago, and I'm a little more confident that it may actually go somewhere this time.

Fingers crossed.


m said...

Yeah...notes from strangers who don't have any stake in the project.

Sometimes hey can make you think about something, but there's also the danger that they'll make you think too much about something.

I once got contest notes on one of my scripts where some of the complaints were essentially the same things I say when describing/selling someone on the concept.

There was also the sense that maybe the reader didn't understand some of the more basic parts of the the concept.

That script was a no-show in that contest, but then went on to win other ones.

I did get something out of those notes that led me to change up one scene. Not a lot, but...

ANYWAY, glad to see you back posting again.

Josh said...

Thanks, man. Good to be back.

John Reha said...

Notes are a double-edged sword. My advice on the controversial topic? Answer this question: is it integral to the script, or is it something you put in there to grab people's attention?

If it's the latter, and very little of the former, then maybe it should be cut out and the focus should go onto the characters, the plot for the episode, and setting up their conflicts for the next 12-22 episodes of the first season, and the series beyond.

(As an aside, your fiance continues to not send me the script, so consider this an invitation to send it over so I can give a read. I'm fairly intrigued by now.)

Josh said...

Suckah! Yes, I just lost the game.

The attention-getting controversial topic is absolutely integral to the story we've set up. It's the A-plot. It's also the first I've ever seen this topic being handled in this way, which I think is really a good thing.