Sunday, March 31, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #179: Be Happy to Start On the Ground Floor (UPDATED)

Here are two of the dangerous things a writer can think:
  • “I like these creators, so that means I’m now good enough to write for them.”
  • “I’m not impressed by those creators, therefore I’m already too good to write for them.”
As Ira Glass points out in this great interview, you can’t confuse your taste as a consumer with your ability as a creator.  At the beginning of your career, you’re not going to be good enough to write for any of the people you really respect.  And you’ll probably never be good enough to write for your very favorite creators.  This just makes sense: There’s a huge difference between liking the very best and being the very best.  Your taste will, and should, always exceed your talent.
Here’s one of my biggest regrets of my career: One day in film school, I casually mentioned to my mentor that I’d had an idea for a tween show.  He liked the idea and suggested that he set up a meeting with a producer he knew in that world.  But I then realized that I didn’t really care enough to develop the pitch that far: “Are you kidding?  I’m busy writing spec scripts for all the deep, complex, dark shows on TV, and now you want me to change gears and pitch for some kiddie network I’d never even watch?”

A lot of writers say that you should never write something you wouldn’t watch yourself.  On the surface, this seems to make sense, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny: Do the writers of “Dora the Explorer” really love to watch “Dora the Explorer”?  The fact is that most unsophisticated kids’ shows are actually written by sophisticated adults…and that’s the way it should be.

Actually, it gets worse: when you first start out, not only are you not experienced enough to write for the shows you love, you’re not even experienced enough to know why you like them.

So many of of us in film school would say “I love ‘Sopranos’, ‘Mad Men’, and ‘Breaking Bad’ because those shows prove that you don’t need a sympathetic protagonist!”  We failed to perceive that while, yes, those shows chose to sacrifice some sympathy, they made up for it by generating more empathy: we don’t like Tony, Don, and Walt but we do love them.

I have nothing but respect for those shows, but I now realize that part of their design is to flatter the audience in a very cynical way: On the one hand, they say, “You’re a sophisticated audience that doesn’t need likable heroes”, but on the other hand, they work extra hard to subtly manipulate us into loving them.

Of course, I only figured that out later, once I’d tried to create some unsympathetic heroes of my own and discovered that everybody hated them.

I should have dropped everything else and written that kids’ show.  I should have started on the ground floor.  I should have tried to figure out how to get an audience to like a likable character (which is, believe it or not, very hard to do) before I tried to get people to love an unlikable character (which is even harder).

UPDATE: Two day after I posted this, the Onion AV Club ran a great interview with the supremely talented Graham Yost (“Band of Brothers”, “Justified”) where they talked about this:
  • GY: Hey Dude was my first real “paid to write scripted television” experience. It was very low-budget. We were shooting on location at a real dude ranch in Tucson, so it looked pretty good for the paltry sum. We’d shoot an episode in three days so we were shooting 10 to 15 pages a day in the half-hour format. It was a great experience. The budget was a challenge, but the big challenge was just that we weren’t necessarily the best writers; we all became better. Lisa Melamed started on that show, and she’s gone on to a long career in television. That was the starting point for me, and we learned a lot by doing, and that was really cool. You could just see things to do and not do. 
  • I got asked recently, I think it was by TV Guide, to write a short thing about Hey Dude. There’s a story I always tell: This producer from Knoxville, Tennessee—after I had this character give this long bit of exposition about how they ended up where they are—said, “You know, you could have just had her say, ‘I’ll tell you later.’” And I was like, “Oh my God. You’re absolutely right. I should have done that. That would have been so much better.” I still kind of overwrite, so I haven’t entirely learned the lesson.
  • AVC: There are so many good TV writers who have come out of children’s TV. What do you think makes that a good proving ground or a good learning ground?
  • GY: The thing that jumps to mind is that it’s the equivalent of writing a sonnet, which is that there are limitations, and you have to be creative within those limitations. So perhaps you come up with solutions that you wouldn’t have otherwise. If you could do anything you want, you might not have thought of [this]. I think that discipline is very helpful in television. It’s just also the volume. For me, I think we did 65 episodes of Hey Dude, and I wrote 13 of them. So one in five episodes I wrote, as well as doing a lot of rewriting. It was just a lot of work, and that discipline of just getting up and having to write. It was pretty wonderful.


Beth said...

This post is so helpful. It's so easy to dismiss those simple little ideas, and try to tackle my Big Ideas. I am going to re-consinder my less brag-worthy projects. Thanks Matt.

I do want to add, though, that even if you write a kids show like Dora, you can't totally hate what you're writing. I think that would show through. You can be mildly interested, and that's okay, since no adult it gonna love her as much as a pre-schooler. Shaun the Sheep and Animaniacs are great example of a kids shows that just as much fun for adults, since the writings so good.

Matt Bird said...

Well, yes, if you want to write a show well, you have to either like it on some level or at least find an appreciation of it (I've never see Dora, but from what I hear it's actually pretty good. My toddler-daughter already somehow has Dora shoes, so it's just matter of time until I find out.) but part of being a working screenwriter is coming to terms with working on projects that you flat-out loathe, and still somehow doing a good job. I'll have a post about that at some point...

j.s. said...

Hmm. I don't know. This post reminds me of a false dichotomy I used to think of often which I refer to as Unicorns vs. Art.

I used to joke in film school that I'd write any kind of film for money except "a unicorn movie." That was my limit. Perhaps I was arrogant in thinking it was beneath me. But I was also correct in understanding that the very best version of such a thing was beyond me. Because I had (and still have) absolutely nothing to say about unicorns or to the kids who care about them. Cut to a few years later when a film school acquaintance actually made his version of a unicorn movie (as an Indie film no less!). And, though I've never see it, it certainly looks as corny and obvious as his other work. Turns out neither one of us was cut out to reboot MY LITTLE PONY into FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC, though his attempt made way more sense than mine ever would have.

So if this was really a missed opportunity then where are all the other Matt Bird 'tween pilots and franchise specs? Instead, didn't you really internalize this lesson in a much subtler direction by ending up creating more commercial and less angsty versions of the dark crime/thriller stories that obsessed you then and now?

rams said...

Shoot, I want to read his sonnets. He's absolutely right about the ability of closed forms to force you into solutions and leaps you'd never see otherwise. Excuse me while I go herd my avant gard, experimentalist students over here...