"The Write Blog" - 5 new articles
This week on The Write Environment, host Jeffrey Berman interviews Sam Simon, a co-creator of Fox's longest running animated TV series, "The Simpsons," Simon discusses his favorite comedians, as well as his work for "Taxi", "Cheers", and "The Drew Carey Show.
Simon started out wanting to be an animator, so it's no surprise that he is one of the Executive Producers who co-created Fox's longest running animated TV series, "The Simpsons". The recipient of a dozen Emmys as well as a Peabody Award, Simon has written for some of TV's most notable series including "Taxi", "Cheers", and "The Drew Carey Show". In this candid one-on-one with Simon, this critically acclaimed television writer, producer and director discusses his early days in Hollywood, shaping the face of "The Simpsons", and his fondness for comedian, George Carlin.
If you are in the Los Angeles area you can watch The Write Environment on KCET every Wednesday night at 10pm and again the following Saturday evening at 11PM.
KCET's press release Announces New Program Schedule
Wednesday is Drama Night. At 8:00 p.m., Robert Vaughn stars in Hustle, about a grifter who works with a team of con artists with a conscience in England. Then Helen Mirren stars in Prime Suspect as the tenacious, difficult and brilliant Jane Tennison, a no-nonsense British detective for Scotland Yard. Next, The Write Environment features local filmmaker Jeffrey Berman as host of one-on-one interviews with prolific screenwriters.
Jeffrey Berman hosts this series of programs that provides an insight into the creative process by talking to some of the most influential writers in the entertainment business. This week's guest is writer/director Joss Whedon, who is one of the most prolific figures in television.
You can find out more and keep track at KCET's website. http://www.kcet.org/shows/write_environment/
Or keep watching here for updates.
This article is long overdue. I haven’t blogged much lately because I’ve been busy developing a new series called Naught For Hire, starring Bern Browder. I won’t take up anytime discussing the show just now but if you’d like to learn more about it check out www.naughtforhire.com. In the meantime…
If you’re a comic book reader, like me, you have to agree that the industry has reached a new golden age. Especially now, when the Hollywood has reached the point where they can faithfully adapt the mainstream stories we’ve been reading for years, even decades and still find time to adapt some of the lesser known, independent comics. There has never been a better time to be a fan of comic books.
Which brings me to an interview I did with the writer of the best comic to be adapted into a film this year, so far… Kick-Ass.
Created by Mark Millar ("Wanted") and John Romita, Jr. ("Spider-Man"), Kick-Ass is the story of an average high school teenager who decides to put on a costume and fight crime as a real life superhero, and runs into real world bad guys who beat the crap out of him. And by that I mean two broken legs, a ruptured spleen, a collapsed lung and some serious head trauma. And that’s just the end of issue One of this eight-issue limited series.
Not your traditional comic book superhero.
But then, Mark Miller is not your traditional superhero comic book writer. Multi award-winning writer Millar has revamped the X-Men, launched a number one Spider-Man title, brought Captain America into the 21st Century and made Superman a communist. He is also the writer of the US industry's biggest-selling comic book of the past decade, Marvel's Civil War, published in 2007. His Wanted comic series was the industry's biggest-selling creator-owned book of the last ten years until he smashed his own record with Kick-Ass, each issue selling more than Spider-Man and X-Men from issue one with an unprecedented five printings every issue. Both properties were sold as movies before the first issue hit the stands and everything Millar has ever created is in various stages of theatrical development.
During the premiere of Kick-Ass, I had the good fortune to speak with this non-traditional comic book writer. And being a non-traditional interviewer I promised I wouldn’t ask any of those softball press junket questions such as “If you could be a Superhero what power would you like to have?” Instead, we dug deep into the nitty-gritty of what it means to be a superhero in the real world.
Jeffrey Berman: At some point over the last few decades’ comic books, yours in particular, abandoned fantasy for grittier, adult oriented stories that more often than not reflect real life. What is it about those themes that resonate so much with you?
Mark Miller: Well, I think it is quite interesting that before my career took off, and for quite a long time, nothing really happened. I was getting short gigs here and there on books that were just about to be canceled and I would maybe get a short run on things here and the stuff was quite well received but never really resonated with a mass audience the way that every writer supposedly wants to do. And I think what I was doing is that I was influenced by my comic book collection as opposed to being influenced by the world outside. Then I read this interview with Stan Lee, which I found very interesting, it was an old interview with him, and he was talking about what made Marvel and DC very different was that Marvel Comics were one DNA strand away from the real world and it was supposed to be the New York outside his window he was writing about with these fantastic characters in it. And at that point something switched on with me. It was around about the year 2000. I was making the jump from Superman Adventures, which I loved writing but it was a children’s book you know, like a fairy tale book. And jumping over from that to The Authority which was very grounded, earthy super heroes in the real world book and that was when I found my style. The way that artists have a particular style whether it is cartoony or surrealism or whatever I think that’s where I found the style that I was most comfortable with. And instead of looking back at old comics which I loved I tried to look ahead and think what would get the next generation into it.
JB: Starting with The Authority and moving forward from there, is it safe to say that your work is really characterized by a hard-edged cynical view of the superhero world and of the superhero himself?
MM: Um... it is funny because I never really think of it as cynical but I think your readers know your work a lot better than the writer does, as kinda like the way your family members know you better than you know yourself. And that is the thing people seem to take away from my stuff, that it is kind of dark or cynical or political and it is weird because I do not think of myself as that type of person. But maybe that is just a slightly skewed perspective, that someone, a foreigner essentially, dealing with American icons brings to it. We maybe look at people in uniforms with ultimate power with a lot more suspicion than Americans do. I think Americans have a really healthy optimistic attitude and I think sometimes that can be taken advantage of. Generally speaking, I think Americans tend to look up to people in uniform, whereas in this country, we are a little bit suspicious of anyone in power. So I mean that is only my own personal theory of why we maybe look at super heroes a little differently than you guys.
JB: You have to admit that Kick-Ass is a very violent book. In my opinion, extreme violence seems to characterize a lot of the work you have been doing lately.
MM: Well it’s quite interesting actually ‘cause again I am too close to really notice, but when I look back it is quite interesting. One of my relatives showed me that every image was like Wolverine slashing a Hulk in half for something or Apollo flying through a giant man’s head, you know that kinda stuff. Oh my God, that is something like a serial killer would come up with, you know. I think of myself as a very nice healthy person, you know, and I was quite disturbed when I saw it. I think of myself as quite charming and it’s funny. Growing up as a Catholic I suppose my earliest imagery I saw around the house and in the church was of someone being crucified or someone being flayed or whatever, you know. So I think we are very comfortable with very disturbing imagery. I have noticed this amongst a lot of Catholic writers, like Frank Miller.
JB: What I enjoy about the independent projects you have been writing lately is that there is a very strong sense of realism which started with The Ultimates, where you took superheroes that had been in that world and said what would they be like if they were real people today. Looking at your work, what do you think is the next level of realistic super heroes? Where do you go with them from here?
MM: I think your cast is part of a wave actually, you know. You have the golden-age characters, which I adore, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, all your classic characters. And then you have your Atomic-age characters, you know, your silver-age characters, like the Marvel characters. You got either the re-inventions of the beefy characters and the stuff that (Joe) Simon, Jack (Kirby) and (Stan) Lee created. Then you sort of get your image characters which they never quite caught on, but they do belong. They were huge in their day and I think we always forget just how big those things were. At the time they were really as big as Spiderman was back in the sixties. Things were selling millions of copies. What I see now is a gap in the market essentially. I think everyone has been waiting for the next generation of superheroes to come along. They’re re-inventing Spiderman with Ultimate Spiderman, re-inventing The Avengers with The Ultimates. And I think that people are looking for something new. I was quite surprised how big Wanted was when I wrote the comic, because it was the first creator owned thing I tried and it out sold Spiderman. And then Kick Ass came along and out sold Wanted. I don’t even know if it’s because if they are technically good or they are sort of fulfilling a need. That people are looking for the post-millennial superhero now… they’re looking for the next thing. So what I am trying to do now is to create a whole wave of these in the same way that Stan and Jack did back in the sixties. To write them all within a few years of one another and hopefully get this generation a big library of super heroes.
JB: Do you think visually when working on a script or does story come first with you?
MM: Oh that’s a really interesting question because people who work as novelists and try to do comics find out it is different than writing a book. Whereas screenwriters adapt to it very well because it is a very similar discipline. Although I think it is even tighter than screenwriting because you can have people chatting for three minutes and it is fascinating. Visually it is interesting because the actors keep it together, but if you have a whole issue of two people talking it is eventually very dull. In comic books something interesting, visually interesting has to happen every few pages. So I think you almost write comics as an artist, I think it is a weird thing for a writer to say but I think it is eighty percent visually driven. A great writer can be destroyed by a bad artist, but a great artist can make even a rubbish story look good. I would say I probably have three or four big visuals in my head before I start writing anything and I always like to give at least two big moments every issue.
JB: I would agree with your assessment about the talking heads in comics for every writer except probably Brian Michael Bendis, who can do an entire book of people just talking to each other and get away with it.
MM: Yeah, luckily he is so good at dialogue he can get away with that. Guys like him are the David Mamet’s of comics.
JB: Do you find yourself constantly being forced to push the envelope with each new project that you write?
MM: Only forced by myself, because I get bored really quickly. If you noticed, most writers stay on something three, four, five years as a nice steady paycheck. But I got this weird thing that I fire myself every year. I never stay on anything more than a year and I hate the idea of resting on my laurels. Some friends I have had have said, “Oh you know you should stick around for a few years and even the bad patches you learn from and then suddenly you find a whole great new section of your arc.” I just feel comics are so expensive that I want every page to be as good as it can be. I try to make every issue visually exciting, filled with story content and everything and just as I am exhausted I move on to a whole new series.
MM: I think violence is realistically what’s going to happen if you put on a costume and go out looking for trouble. Whereas if I was writing a story like American Jesus perhaps for example, the realism of being a twelve year old boy in the American Mid-West is probably very non-violent. At best there is probably going to be a scuffle once a year or something like that at school. But generally speaking it is just you walking around talking to your friends and maybe playing video games or something. To me the realism comes with the situation. Something where the guy is putting on a wet suit and going out looking for gangsters, you know, in one night you are gonna end up with the most horrific violence and end up in an actual emergency.
JB: What is your writing process? How do you work? Do you start with an outline? What is a typical day for you?
MM: Actually it is kind a weird, you know. I really enjoy it but somebody described it as passing a really difficult stool and I think that it is an accurate description of it. Because you know you know that the story is there, you are just trying not to fuck it up. You don’t always succeed at that. It is kind a like the story exists and you are just dusting away at it like an archeologist and you are just trying to raise it out of the ground without breaking it. The story I am working on now is like an eight part story that I am just starting today. It’s all there. What I do is just start drawing little scenes and good visual moments. The sort of stuff you would be chatting about if it was a movie and you were walking out of the cinema with your friend. I try to get the scenes, the moments together and then I organically start linking them and how to make it all work. And I know on some kind of sub-conscious level that they do all link together and then I start writing. The bulk of it is done pen and paper and then I write the dialogue and then I start to break it down over issues and edit so that a 29 page story gets down to the necessary 22. I am very ruthless with the stuff, cutting out scenes, cutting out panels, combining panels. Just until the structure is the way I want it to be. I think I am about half as fast as everyone else that I know that I work with, because most guys that I know just sit down and start typing. But I believe in it and I really put that much thought into it and I am there from nine to six every day. And I am amazed when I hear that the guys do four days and everything. I am amazed at how they do it because I get two books a month out if I am lucky and that is an eight hour day.
JB: How has your writing process changed over the years from when you first started working in comics?
MM: Probably identically actually. This is pretty much how I have always worked. I think it is like a muscle though, in a sense that the more you work it the better it gets. I have my own little short hand and everything. Like I used to note the very good action scenes. Now I just have this thing in my head if I storyboard it out on paper and make flow as simply and dramatically as possible, just editing and editing. I think action scenes are kind of one of my strong points, you know. So hopefully I have gotten better.
Juliet Landau is a renaissance woman. She acts, writes, directs, produces, edits and for all I know, dances a mean tango, too.
Juliet Landau: Well, first of all, Gary Oldman was about to direct a music video for the Jewish Hip Hop band, Chutzpah, which he was shooting entirely on cell phones. He asked me to direct the “making-of.” After I agreed, I realized that although I have been in many a “making-of,” I had never actually watched even one. I buckled down and watched tons of film “making-of’s,” music video “making-of’s,” documentaries and director commentaries. I made notes about the elements that I found most interesting and riveting. The thru line of those elements began to emerge. It became clear that I was interested in seeing an artist at work, being a party to his/her process. I knew that I was going to have three cameras, and while I would catch all of the action, I was certain that I would stay on Gary as much as possible. I had 50 hours of footage that I condensed into a 25-minute film, which includes Gary’s music video at the end. I watched all 50 hours three times through. Gary operated one of the “cell-cam’s” which afforded us an extremely rare POV. It’s as if the viewer is inside his head, seeing through his eyes. It was while watching the footage that it evolved. I asked Gary if I could make a short documentary and he gave me his blessing to do so.
JB: What was the development process like on TAKE FLIGHT? What kind of shooting outline or detailed treatment did you write to serve as a blueprint for the documentary?
JL: I made a timeline of all of the shots I wanted to be sure to get. But, I also wanted to be open to go with the surprises as they presented themselves. While I did shoot some direct to camera interviews, I always felt it would be more in the vein of verite filmmaking. My outline was two pages long. I would check stuff off as we got it, for instance, having each of the girls sing the Red Rover song. It was always my intention to try to capture Gary’s incredible sense of humor.
JB: How did the editing process affect the story you initially set out to tell with TAKE FLIGHT?
JL: Initially I thought I’d cut the cell phone footage in here and there with the HD footage being the basis for the timeline. But when I saw the unique perspective I had with the phone footage, I decided it had to be the reverse. I intercut it in the following way: first we get peppered glimpses, then longer, more expansive pieces, and by the end, the viewer is completely released into Gary’s view. While it all cuts seamlessly and fluidly, I decided to keep the cell footage 4X3, and everything else 16X9. Not only does it preserve Gary’s framing, it makes it clear to the audience when we are “looking though his eyes.” The music video is very cutty. I wanted to linger on and relish the beauty of those shots. The film starts as a chronicle of the shoot, but it becomes something more. There is a point where Gary says, “I’m just trying to find the right moment…” I think that is the pursuit of every artist, searching for the moment where everything gels, and takes flight.
JB: How involved were you with Gary Oldman as he was shooting his video? Was there any discussion with him prior to shooting about shots you wanted or were looking to get?
JL: He basically gave me free reign so I was really nervous when the day arrived to show him my cut. I went to his house with my computer, the hard drive and a thick spiral notebook, to get his notes. I thought sitting there while he watched it was going to be the most interminable 25 minutes of my life. But I started the film, and low and behold, it was fun! He was completely engaged and laughing throughout. Afterward, I had my pen poised, ready to take copious notes. But he only gave me one note. A note about moving a sound cue, one of his comments, to a bit later, and that was it!
JB: As a first time documentary writer/director what did you learn from producing TAKE FLIGHT and how will this affect the next project you decide to shoot?
JL: Just like with acting, and with life for that matter, it is good to trust your instincts. They always lead me in the right direction. I was lucky to work with incredibly talented, skilled people, which I absolutely will do on my next shoot. Also, preparation is key. When I co-directed the HERO music video for Godhead or with the viral campaign I am putting together for TAKE FLIGHT, preparation makes all the difference in the world. I prepare for everything I work on, whether it’s acting, still shoots, directing, you name it, and it always pays off. I find the more prepared I am, I have a fluidity and ease to flow with the unexpected. I’d like the next project to have a real budget. It is hard to work around people’s paying gigs when you are pulling in favors. The process gets protracted and tiring. But either way, in the end, it is amazing to have a vision and to bring it to life!
You can watch Take Flight at Juliet’s official site.
In many respects, animation writing is the bastard step-child of TV and screenwriting. When it comes to the act of writing there is absolutely no difference between writing a script for an animated half hour series or that of a live action sitcom. There just isn’t. Any way you twist the glass it’s still writing. Yet for all the strides the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has made towards protecting TV writers, they still don’t cover animation writers. There is no reasonable or logical explanation for it; it’s just a fact of life. Becuse of this the majority of animation writers are denied the same benefits as their cousin live action writers (with the exception of some prime-time animated series). Most animation writers receive no residuals, spotty health coverage and often times little or no recognition for the job they do to entertain us.
Steven Melching: That’s difficult for me to answer, because I haven’t written much live-action television. But I think there are more similarities than differences, especially given how sophisticated animated television has become in the last 15-20 years in terms of storytelling. It’s no longer strictly for children. There’s been an explosion of animated series for the adult audience, and even shows produced primarily for young audiences have strong followings with teenagers, college students, and beyond. Any stigma attached to watching cartoons after a certain age has evaporated.
There’s a misconception that you can “do anything” in animation, that the only limitation to the storytelling is the writer’s imagination. While there is some truth in that, the fact remains that animated series have budgets and schedules, just like live action. Speaking parts still have to be cast and actors paid, and even though actors can perform as many as three voices, we can only afford to hire so many. Each new character, prop, vehicle, and location has to be designed by an artist, which costs money. And some things are just very difficult and/or expensive to animate convincingly, so we try to avoid them. Things like crowd scenes. There might actually be more differences between writing for cell animation versus computer animation than between animation and live-action. Or between writing gag-driven animation versus action/adventure animation.
One thing we tend to do in animation is “direct on the page,” which is discouraged to varying degrees in live-action. Sometimes it gets as detailed as describing every single shot in a scene. So animation scripts are generally much longer than live-action scripts. For example, a script for a 30-minute action/adventure show is usually between 32-36 pages long, but written in the same single-space format as a live-action movie.
And I’m really only talking about half-hour “story driven” animated series. Other cartoons don’t really even have scripts at all. They start with an outline, but are “written in storyboard” by the story artists and director.
SM: If anything, my style has gotten looser and more readable as I got more comfortable with the medium. I think my craft and confidence has improved to the point that I can use fewer words to say the same thing. (Not that you can tell by my long-winded answers to these questions.)
When I started on X-MEN, I loved to write the action sequences. I took great pleasure in plotting out the mayhem blow-by-blow. But as the years pass I find that stuff less and less interesting to actually write. Don’t get me wrong, I love action. I love dreaming up an inventive setpiece. And I love figuring out how to advance story, explore character, and illuminate theme through action, but actually sitting down to type it all up is sometimes tedious.
THE CLONE WARS is a unique case. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on shows based on beloved properties with long histories and devoted fandoms (X-MEN, BATMAN, HE-MAN, TRANSFORMERS), but never one where the original creator was actively involved. I mean, George Lucas is personally involved in every stage of the process, from approving (and often generating) stories, giving notes on scripts, supervising the design, to shaping the final episodes in the editing room (which can involve a lot of rewriting and restructuring). Also, the director is king at Lucasfilm. That’s just George’s filmmaking philosophy. In large part the script serves as a means to generate film to edit, which then illuminates what elements need to change. It’s a fascinating process.
As a writer for CLONE WARS, I can’t say I had much freedom in terms of the big picture, for several reasons. George Lucas and supervising director Dave Filoni have very specific goals in mind for the stories. And since the series takes place between two movies, there’s only so much development that can take place, at least as far as the major film characters are concerned. Where there is latitude is with the supporting characters, as well as the ones that were created for the show. As a writer, my challenge is to capture that very specific STAR WARS tone, find fun ways to keep the story moving, and invent new little details that are surprising.
JB: In animation what comes first, story or plot? And why?
SM: Story, for sure. To me, story is the broad strokes, the beginning-middle-end, the journey of the characters. Plot is the logic and mechanics required for the story to track and make sense. With some shows, CLONE WARS in particular, a third element is very important: theme. In fact, that often came first. What is the story really about? The answer to that question informed every other aspect of the writing.
SM: It always starts with a call from producer/story editor Michael Jelenic. He tells me what heroes and villains they want to use, and which ones they don’t. Sometimes he has an idea for a story for me to flesh out, and sometimes he asks me to pitch him ideas. Once we hone in on a story we’ll get together with producer James Tucker and we’ll try to break the story in the room. Throw around ideas, and come out of the meeting with a strong idea of what the “A” and “B” stories are, how they relate, and what the character arcs and relationships are.
Then I go home and write it up in a few pages. Michael and James will give me their thoughts on that premise, and then I’ll either revise it or flesh it out further into a 10-12 page outline that lays out the story scene-by-scene. Then it’s back to Michael and James for another round of notes. Unless we discover major problems with the story, I don’t usually rewrite the outline. I just keep the notes in mind as I write the first draft script. Then another round of notes and another draft. Hopefully the script is in pretty good shape at that point, and Michael does the final polishing himself.
A couple weeks later comes the best part, the cherry on the sundae: the voice recording session! It’s always a blast to go into the studio, see the cast and meet the guest stars -- and we get some GREAT guest stars. One of my favorite memories is seeing comedian Fred Willard in the booth with German horror actor Udo Kier. It’s really satisfying to hear the script come alive. As the writer, I am sometimes asked to clarify things for the director or actors, and write new dialogue on the spot.
JB:. What is the best advice you can offer to someone who wants to break into the world of animated series as a writer?
SM: Make sure it’s what you really want to do. Don’t think of it as “slumming,” or as a way to earn some quick and easy cash, because it’s neither. Producers can smell that attitude a mile away. It’s vitally important to love animation, and understand its strengths and weaknesses.
Aside from that, I’d give the same advice to someone who wants to break into live-action. First, write a spec animation script (or two) for a current show in the genre you want to find work in, like action/adventure, action/comedy, comedy, or pre-school. Then make contacts with producers and executives any which way you can. Ask them to read your stuff. Or better yet, put yourself in a position where they ask to read your stuff. Get a job at a studio or network, or on a show as a script coordinator or producer’s assistant, so you can move in the right circles. Learn the world and the players. Read animation scripts and watch animated series. Animation is a rather small and insular community, and it can be very difficult to crack, so you have to be patient, and above all, persistent.
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