Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Finding the Swing

I really wanted to like the pilot of NBC's Studio 60 . After all, Aaron Sorkin is pretty much my favorite living screenwriter. I was just nuts about The West Wing and he was always a guy whose career I followed back when I was a suit on Wilshire Boulevard. In my freshman year in the business I worked on the Warner lot as The West Wing shot its first season. Guys in blue suits with Secret Service earpieces joined the army of ER extras in bloody scrubs along with the assorted assistants I'd stand in line with at the studio commissary every day at lunch. The show shot in a building right next to the commissary and the enormous brown barn-like doors to the stage always seemed to be open. No one was famous yet, no one had won any Emmys, and I had a friend who was an assistant at John Wells Productions so I got to come on set a few times. Watching even a tiny piece of that show get made was such a thrilling thing to experience as an utterly green 22-year old.

When Sorkin famously left that series four seasons in, every development executive in town including myself salivated at the thought of him being back on the writing market (though he certainly worked his way through the singles scene at Hollywood's upper eschelons as well). I read most of what he put out in those post West Wing years, including his terrific draft of Charlie Wilson's War and an overlong, disappointingly dry spec screenplay called The Farnsworth Invention, which he later rewrote as a play after it was bought and then thrown in turnaround by New Line if my memory serves me correctly. And one Hollywood mogul's wife based a character in her best-selling dishy chick-lit novel on Sorkin. It's about a Hollywood wife whose producer husband leaves her for a younger woman. Then there's the number of other P.R. black eyes that have haunted Sorkin through the years. Public drug habit. Divorce. Getting pinched by the cops for 'shrooms on his way to Vegas.

Whatever. I say to hell with publicists, to hell with the blow and the pot and the airport drug arrests. I can certainly live with that kind of stuff and I frequently thank my higher power that I haven't been "Sorkined" at airport security at some point in my short life. Aaron Sorkin is a fantastic writer. And as a fan of fantastic writing, I really wanted to like his pilot.

But I didn't like the pilot.

Something about it was off. Pace? Tone? I couldn't feel the characters in that deep, instantaneous way that I always want to whenever I watch TV or a film. It tried too hard. Showcase thought the cinematography and design aesthetic was too "noir" for a TV comedy about a TV comedy and I tended to agree. (Though I secretly think Showcase was just bitter about not getting called back for the part in the Studio 60 that went to Stephen Corddry. I can't tell you how many times I had to rehearse that 'Bernadette from the Bernadette blog' scene with him.)

But something happened when I watched the second episode. I fell a little bit in love with the show.

Not quite the love at first sight I felt for the first season of West Wing, but a different kind of love. Slower. Below the surface at first. Then surprising as each layer is pulled off. Amanda Peet and Sarah Paulson still suck and are totally miscast, but this week's installment got me totally more invested in the characters and the world. The real story kicked into motion. It's great to see Matthew Perry actually acting. And the noir thing bothered me less. But most of all, that lilting, stacatto dialogue of Sorkin's that I so love is back en force. It's clear that the backstage-at-a-TV-show material is personal to him. And he found his swing this week.

Thank God. I was just about to be totally disappointed.

* * * * *

I'm finding my own swing right now, as I continue to craft my feature script. Working more intensely and every single day will do that. When I was writing it more sporadically back in the spring, it was so difficult for me to jump back into my characters' voices after putting the piece down for a few days here, a week there. But committing to be here, at my desk, in the early mornings and the late nights just willing myself to get these pages out has made all the difference. I know these characters so well now I can think with their brains. I know what music I have to listen to while writing their dialogue. And the details just come naturally. That's when I'm writing my best.

Preparing for my own process has also made all the difference. You have no idea how much aggregate time I save each week just by having a steady supply of coffee, Diet Coke, Honey Nut Cheerios and marijuana in my apartment.

I used to always think I had to "feel it" to be able to write well. My best stuff is still the stuff I write the quickest and the most effortlessly. But there's a lot to be said for just showing up to batting practice every day. If I whiff a few, it's not the end of the world. Just stay in the box. Keep swinging. Another ball will come off the mound. Maybe a better one. In writing my stare is too often a thousand yards out, worrying about the end result. If I'll live up to all the expectations. Most of all, my own-- for those expectations are far more punishing than anyone else's. Parents, friends, Showcase, Charlie, Hollywood, whatever. I think in the last couple of weeks, I've been able to cast aside those expectations better than I ever have before.

The resulting bi-product? A lot of pages that I like a lot. A lot a lot.

But I still have quite a way to go...


Ruben Bailey said...

Awesome. Keep plugging away. I am still trying to find my way to the batting cage consistenly, everyday.

Also, liked the 2nd episode, but don't you think there were two too many cheezy little "I love you, man" scenes? If I remember correctly, one was between the two "miscast" women, and the other was with Perry and the lead blond......it's almost as if the train skid off the tracks during those two moments.

Oh well, I love Sorkin and LOVE Sportsnight. Vintage.

Absinthe said...

Sarah Paulson sucks the energy out of every scene she's in. It's so bad that I have to stop myself reaching for the TiVo remote whenever she appears.

change100 said...

Paulson's one of those actors that have had like 50 chances with TV and has failed at all of them. Yet NBC has this enduring hard-on for her for reasons passing understanding.

Poker Jones said...

"What I adore is supreme professionalism. I'm bored by writers who can write only when it's raining."
-- Noel Coward

CC said...

I didn't understand much of what you said (so it just made me feel bad that I couldn't understand and evaluate alot of the technical issues with the show), but I'm pretty sure I'm up for the Season Pass for the show. I was never a big Friends fan, but Matthew Perry probably was enough of a hook the first two weeks to get me right in. Monday's pretty empty on our TiVo, so I don't think it's a problem. Will be tuned in to hear your take as an insider throughout.

Great job on cranking away! Keep up the good work.

Unknown said...

SO the question is when will "Will Bailey" Joshua Malina make his traditional Sorkinian appearance. Josh signed a contract with the devil that allows him to appear in any Sorkin project that he wants.

Heh. J/K.

Acutally I found the tempo better in the second one, you have too much exposition in the first one and the tension that had to be created to cause the need for Brad and Matt caused the show to drag.

I know when a show is going to make it... When my friend Damon says he hates it.

Cause with only one exception he has LOVED three shows... and they were all cancelled by mid-season!

Ruben Bailey said...

Hey Change:

If you have a quick second....Do you think you could shoot me an email with the top 3 or 4 talent agencies in Hollywood? It would be really helpful for a project I am working on for my blog.


drubin14 a t g mail dot com

Pokerwolf said...

Great mentality, Change. You're really finding your groove. Keep it up!

Pauly said...

Do you think you can send me Sorkin's cell phone? I need a good Hashish and crack hookup?

DuggleBogey said...

I actually had the opposite experience. The Pilot had me interested, but the totally unbelievable and uninteresting interaction between Perry and Paulson really turned me off.

I'm still in for the season, but I totally agree they need to stay away from Paulson's ridiculous and boring character.

Anonymous said...

I haven't watched the second episode yet and now I can't wait. I personally think Bradley Whitford is the best character on the show and kind of got a kick out of his cocaine issue in the pilot. I still think of him as the guy from the West Wing I guess.

Amanda Peet has a strange vacant stare in anything she's in. Sarah Paulson is so forgetable, I can't even remember one thing I saw her in.

Unknown said...

You've hit on the key to writing - consistency. I've found sometimes that there are things that will get me into that wonderful, free-flowing writing that of course doesn't happen as often as I would like, like movies, music or, er, poker? Maybe not that last one. But I"m glad you see you plugging away, and the batting cage analogy was perfect.

Garthmeister J. said...

There is nothing better than being in a writing groove. Nothing. Keep at it!

Iakaris aka I.A.K. said...

Any clues as to what exactly you are writing about Change? Or did I miss that post?