Ops stops

One strange aspect of writing a blog is recognizing that one’s online narrative doesn’t always match up very well with reality. There is a lag between when events happen and when you write about them.

Take for example Josh Friedman’s recent and scary brush with kidney cancer. As his real-life neighbor, I knew he was on the mend before anyone online knew there was anything wrong. Quite understandably, Josh didn’t blog about the situation while he was in the middle of it. But it was weird watching the two realities diverge. Josh’s readers would write in to me, asking why Josh hadn’t posted for so long. I knew, but it wasn’t my story to tell.

I’m just glad it has a happy ending.

In the dramedy of my own life, one story thread I’ve let drop is Ops, the one-hour drama Jordan Mechner and I developed for Fox.

For those who’ve tuned in late, Ops is an adventure-drama about two guys who run a private military corporation. They’re the sub-sub-contractors for a giant corporation like Halliburton, providing field operations in really dangerous parts of the world, such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Venezuela. Week-to-week, our heroes could be delivering a blood shipment, rescuing a kidnapped executive, or training a security force. Tonally, it’s probably closest to Three Kings. You could also think of it as a modern-day Western.

Ops was originally Jordan’s idea. He’d been researching private military corporations, with the intention of writing a feature. As he described the world to me, I felt it was really more of a TV drama. Much like the detective shows of the 80’s, you were following two guys. You didn’t just want to see them on one mission. You wanted to see them in a new predicament each week.

Jordan agreed, and we decided to write it together.

Our first hero would be THEO VANOWEN, the experienced soldier who is not only the brawn but the tactical brains — he could tell you exactly how many men you needed to guard an airstrip. His partner JOE McGINTY would be the business side of the equation: the salesman, the negotiator and problem-solver. While there would be other supporting characters, the show really falls on their backs.

We pitched the show to our agents at a hotel bar. (Since I’m represented at UTA, and Jordan’s at ICM, it was helpful to have a neutral location.) The agents loved the idea, and suggested we pitch the show to Fox. Two days later, we did. Fox (the studio) quickly bought it, and set it up for Fox (the network) as a put pilot. That was the end of September, 2004.

There was an article in Variety about the show a few days later.

While Jordan and I were writing the pilot, we met with the physical production department about location and budget strategies, since the show would no doubt be expensive. We also had preliminary meetings with actors the studio and/or network liked.

We turned in the pilot script in November, and were met with thunderous silence.

After a week or so, we got notes asking about the tone, and asking questions about certain plot points. We addressed those concerns as well as we could, but there was no question we’d lost mojo. Something was bugging them, but what? It was only after a few drafts that we got our answer: they liked the characters, but weren’t crazy about the A-plot. At all.

For the pilot, we began with a teaser in Afghanistan, then segued into a kidnap-and-rescue in Venezuela. The studio liked the Afghanistan part, but was eager to speed up the story. We tried an Alias-like jump-ahead structure which was interesting but a little gimmicky. No one really liked it.

We met with Gail Berman, president of Fox (the network). She said that what she had really been hoping for was more literally Three Kings. Happy to oblige, we pitched a new pilot that had our heroes trying to deliver a shipment of human blood from Turkey to Kirkuk. Everyone loved it. Jordan and I went off to write our new pilot, which was tentatively slated to shoot mid-season.

Then Gail Berman left Fox, to take over as president of Paramount.

She was replaced by Peter Liguori, who had mostly recently run FX. One of the shows he had developed at FX was “Over There,” an Iraq war drama that was not fairing well in the ratings. Concerned, we called our people at both Foxes, but were assured that the Iraq-ish-ness of our new pilot would be no problem.

Much happier with our new pilot, we turned it in. We got a lot of small notes about tone and comedy, which we tried to address. Everyone professed to love the pilot (several Fox folk called it their favorite), but we never got any word from Liguori about whether or not we would be shooting the pilot.

While we were waiting, I had a baby, and Jordan wrote Prince of Persia. So we were both busy enough.

Nearly a year after we’d set up the project, Jordan and I finally went in for a meeting with Liguori and approximately 10,000 Fox executives. (Okay, maybe just 11.) Peter Liguori, for the record, is friendly, polite and thoughtful. He explained that his reluctance to proceed with Ops was the subject matter, and the Iraq setting in particular. And yet he really admired the show, and wanted to find a way it could work.

Generally, I’m the eager-to-please guy, which explains why I wrote a whole new pilot for Gail Berman. But I wasn’t going to write a third pilot without some commitment from Liguori. He agreed we could start casting and looking for directors based on the current pilot script. Meanwhile, we’d be writing a brand-new pilot that would feature a new A-plot set somewhere other than Afghanistan and Iraq. (We chose Brazil and Uzbekistan.)

And this is where I last left the story, blog-wise. We were casting. When I mentioned that Alexis Denisof and James Marsters had come in, I got lots of gushing Buffy fan mail. In reality, we were pretty far down the road with two actors Fox loved: LL Cool J and Luke Mably. Those two weren’t the only choices; we were lucky to have a lot of interest from talented people.

Then something strange happened.

LL Cool J was “offer-only,” which means he wouldn’t come in to audition beforehand. That’s pretty common for a star at his level. Every day or two, I would get a call from LL’s agent asking if we were still interested in him, because Fox business affairs hadn’t called to start making a holding deal for him.

So, every day or two, I would call the powers-that-be at Fox and say, “Hey, let’s make that LL deal.” But it wouldn’t happen. And I could never get a clear answer on why it wasn’t happening.

Finally, I ended up just calling Liguori to ask why they weren’t making LL’s deal. Was Liguori having second thoughts about making the show?


In fact, he had decided he didn’t want the show after all.

And suddenly, just like that, Ops was dead.

Our phone conversation was at noon. We had another casting session scheduled in an hour. So my first call was to the casting director, telling him to cancel the session and send the 30 or so actors home. Then I called Jordan, who was bummed. He had just finished seven pages of the third pilot.

He sent them. I read them and gave notes, just for the hell of it. We sent a big basket of muffins to the casting agency to thank them for their hard work, and called it a day.

When a pilot is announced, it shows up in Variety. Everyone knows about it.

When a pilot dies, it dies quietly in the corner. So for the next week, I kept getting calls from agents about their writer/director/actor client who would be perfect for Ops. It was awkward to tell them that the show was kaput.

In reality, the show wasn’t fully dead, because Fox (the studio) still had the right to take the project to other networks. One of the reasons I didn’t blog about Ops’ demise earlier is that we were still under consideration at NBC and Showtime. They both ultimately passed, which is good, because I had mentally moved on about an hour after the phone call with Liguori.

One aspect of the Ops situation that might perplex some readers is that the show was announced as a “put pilot,” which means that when Fox made the original deal with Jordan and me, one of the conditions was that they basically promised to shoot the pilot. In reality, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a put pilot.

In the case of Ops, there was a substantial penalty that Fox agreed to pay in the event they didn’t end up shooting the pilot. In a few months, I’ll get a check with a few zeroes for my trouble. Given how much time and money it would have taken to shoot the pilot, it’s almost certainly for the best the train stopped where it did. There’s no sense producing a pilot if the network didn’t want the show.

To the degree there’s a silver lining, I can now offer a bunch of new stuff in the Downloads section. In the Ops category, you’ll find stuff from all three versions of the pilot, along with the sides we used for casting.

On the whole, I’m proud of the show that never was. It was my first experience writing with a partner, and Jordan was a great collaborator. While I probably wouldn’t choose to write with someone again, it was good to learn that I could if I had to.

I’m really not angry with Fox or Liguori. I understand his decision, although I wish he’d reached it a few months earlier. The various incarnations of Ops took about six months of my writing, and a sizable chunk of my brain space. The mental real estate can be reclaimed, but there’s a real opportunity cost to the time I lost. I could have written two features in that time.

Or blogged more.

Anyway, that’s the story of Ops. It feels good to have my real-life narrative a little closer to my online version.

Writer and Director and Disaster

Do you think it’s bad for the movie, if the story, the screenplay and directing is being done by the same person?

— Karri Tahvanainen
via IMDb

Not if that one person is extremely talented. Some of my favorite movies come from writer-directors, who carried the project from conception to completion.

But there are certainly writers who shouldn’t direct, and directors who would be better off leaving the words to someone else. For instance…

No, actually, I won’t name names. But it’s not hard to think of a few examples.

It may be helpful to compare the attributes of a writer to the life of a director.

WRITER: works alone, sets own schedule, implements notes
DIRECTOR: works with crew, follows production schedule, gives notes

The job of a writer and the job of a director are fundamentally different, which is why so few people are great at both.

But I think there are situations where the writer is justified in choosing to direct his own material, even if he is a misanthropic slow-poke who has trouble communicating with others. Some stories have such a unique vision and voice, they can really only be told by one person.

For example, Kevin Smith often gets ragged on for his directing, and I think even he’d admit that his films don’t always look that great. His camera work isn’t inspired. His staging can be awkward. But the fact is, a “more talented” director couldn’t make a Kevin Smith movie. His films rely on a certain attitude and personality that only he can provide. Terrence Malick’s CLERKS just wouldn’t be the same.

Why most scripts never become movies

questionmarkOn September 5th you had said that “most scripts don’t become movies, and a hundred things could go wrong in the process.” What exactly was meant by this, and of the scripts that you have written and you deemed worthy of the silver screen, how many actually made it there?

via IMDb

We’ll start with the second part first. By my count, I’ve written 18 feature-length scripts. I have seven produced credits, which means I have a 39% production rate.

That’s actually not bad. It gives the illusion of being prolific when in fact it’s just a combination of luck and careful picking. As I’ve said before, my favorite genre is “movies that get made.”

I’ve also done significant-but-uncredited rewrite work on seven other screenplays, five of which have been made.

Your question includes the qualifier, “[that] you deemed worthy of the silver screen.” I can honestly say that at the time I wrote them, I considered every one of my scripts worthy of the screen.

Now? Not so much.

But for the sake of example, let me list my never-made scripts and briefly explain why they won’t be playing soon at a theatre near you.

Here and Now
My first script. Nicely written but largely plotless.

How to Eat Fried Worms
Was actually made this year, but with a script by a different writer.

A Wrinkle in Time
Was made for television, with a draft that pre-dated mine.

Untitled Zombie Western
Will probably get made at some point, in some form.

Fenwick’s Suit
The studio didn’t like my script, and let the underlying rights lapse.

The studio thought it was too expensive for what it was.

Thief of Always
The director and the author hated my draft. Hated.

Secret Project I Can’t Talk About
Will hopefully get made soon.

The two studios bickered and dickered until the underlying rights fell out.

Probably will get made at some point, in some form.

In a perpetual holding pattern at the studio.

Studios develop a lot of projects that never end up getting made. Every few years, an outsider with a lot of money will come to Hollywood and vow, “We’re not going to waste money. We’re only going to develop the projects we’re going to make!”

And a few years later, they’ll have a dozen projects in various stages of development, and maybe one or two movies. Because it’s not just the script that determines whether a movie gets made. You need the right director, the right stars, the right way to market the movie. You can be a week from shooting when a hurricane destroys your location, or a strike shuts down production. Or the exchange rate takes a dive.

As the screenwriter, there are hundreds of variables I can’t control. So I consider it a minor miracle any time a movie gets made.

Virtual Sundance

parkaIt’s quiet in Hollywood this morning, because a large percentage of the town in is Utah for the Sundance Film Festival.

For those who’ve never been, let me give you a quick impression of what it would feel like if you were there.

  • First, imagine everyone you’ve ever worked with, both good and bad.

  • Next, put them in parkas and boots.

  • Arrange them all in a long line stretching down the sidewalk. It’s very much like the queue for a Star Wars movie, except the film in question is a vulgar Hungarian “comedy” about three generations of masturbators. (Note: I actually saw this film.)

  • Add a Weinstein.

  • Call in favors to get on the list for the secret Beastie Boys show.

  • Somehow get into the secret show, only to realize that a room packed with two hundred people in parkas is pretty miserable.

  • Go to sleep, wake up, then see a few movies you probably wouldn’t bother watching on cable.

I’m not at the festival this year, partly because I just got back from the “other” Sundance: the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. I was an advisor this year, helping five filmmakers work on their upcoming features. The projects were all terrific.

Two of my advisees have films in the festival this year. So Yong Kim’s film In Between Days is intimate and amazing, and a perfect example of why digital filmmaking allows for new kinds of storytelling.

Photographer Carter Smith has his short film Bugcrush in the festival. Looking at the trailer, you’d think, “Hmm. That looks disturbing.” Trust me: the film is so, so much more disturbing than that. In a good way. Mostly.

Unless you have a thing about bugs.

Drive-by tagging

I got tagged to write up my answers to Fun Joel’s scribosphere meme thing. So here goes.

ONE (1) earliest film-related memory:

I went to see The Muppet Movie with my Mom. It was just the two of us, so my Dad and brother were gone somewhere. It might have been an Indian Guides camp-out, or my Grandfather’s funeral. “Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what’s on the other side?”

The Muppet Movie is oddly meta if you go back and watch it as an adult. For instance, The Sunshine Band Electric Mayhem decides to join Kermit on his quest only because they pick up the script and read ahead.

TWO (2) favorite lines from movies:

“Get away from her, you bitch!”
– Ripley, Aliens (James Cameron)

“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
– Margo Channing, All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

THREE (3) jobs you’d do if you could not work in the “biz”:

  • Chef
  • Graphic Designer
  • Web Monkey

FOUR (4) jobs you actually have held outside the industry:

  • Graphic Designer
  • Bank Temp (I set off the silent alarm)
  • Campus Tour Guide
  • Handkerchief Ironer

THREE (3) book authors you like:

  • David Sedaris
  • Augusten Burroughs
  • Steven Pinker

TWO (2) movies you’d like to remake or properties you’d like to adapt:

  • Tarzan
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Charlie’s Angels
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • Forbidden Planet
  • Pride and Prejudice (as if we need another one)

ONE (1) screenwriter you think is underrated:

Alejandro Amenábar.

THREE (3) people I’m tagging to answer this meme next:

Josh Friedman, Craig Mazin, and American McGee.

Because not all screenwriters live in Wisconsin

I recently did an e-mail interview with the good folks at the Wisconsin Screenwriters Forum, only to realize that a significant percentage of my readership base (aspiring screenwriters, confused Christians, web-surfing office drones) lives outside of our 30th state, and therefore might not receive the newsletter.

So with WSF’s kind permission, I’m reprinting it here.

Could you tell me a little about the process you went through from the time you decided you wanted to write screenplays, to the time you wrote GO?

I wrote my first script in graduate school. It was a romantic tragedy set in Colorado. Reading it now, I don’t think it’s all that good, but the writing showed enough promise to get me some meetings, and ultimately an agent. By that time, I had already written the first part of Go, designed to be a short film. It was only several scripts later (after How to Eat Fried Worms and A Wrinkle in Time) that I went back and wrote the full version of Go.

I pretty much always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t really know anything about screenwriting until I got to Los Angeles. Like all new screenwriters, it took a while to get used to the format.

How did GO make its way from an idea in your mind to your first produced feature film?

Go came from a bunch of little incidents I’d collected over the years, some true, some not. A lot of people focus on the structure of it, but I think what makes it work is that moment-by-moment, you’re not sure where the hell it’s going. That’s very much the experience of being twenty.

What process do you adhere to, if any, when approaching an adaptation?

Adaptations are really no different than originals. You’re looking for what’s inherently the “movie idea.” Sometimes that’s obvious (Jurassic Park) and sometimes that’s more work to uncover (Big Fish). But in both cases, you’re best off building the movie from the ground up, rather than trying to force the original material into a cinematic shape.

What are some of the smartest things you’ve done in regards to your career? Things you feel have helped bring you to your current level of success.

I was never a big networker. I didn’t keep up relationships on the off chance that someday I’d work with a certain person. But I learned how to be good in meetings, which means knowing when to talk and when to listen. When people would give me stupid notes, I wouldn’t reject them outright, but would rather try to intuit what they actually wanted, even if they couldn’t articulate it. And I’ve always tried to be the guy who comes up with solutions, rather than pointing out problems.

Have you made any mistakes along the way, in regards to your screenwriting career, which others could potentially learn from?

Especially early in my career, I’d fall in love with a given scene and do anything to keep it in the script, even if in my heart I knew it wasn’t working for the story. Now, I’m a lot more ruthless. There will always be other great scenes. What’s important is that the piece as a whole is working.

How do you approach writing that snappy dialogue you’ve become popular for?

Dialogue is just the way people would talk if they had a few extra seconds to think about what they were going to say. It’s not exactly natural; it’s more compressed and streamlined. I think it’s a lot like how illustrators do animation, flipping pages back and forth to see how it moves. I’m constantly reading from line to line, making sure the rhythm works.

What are some of your favorite movies? Screenplays? Books?

My favorite movie is Aliens, which is probably my favorite screenplay as well. I don’t know that I have one favorite book. I don’t tend to re-read books the way I’ll re-watch movies, so I don’t have the same kind of familiarity with any one work. But in general, I love the dysfunctional family genre, such as Augusten Burrough’s RUNNING WITH SCISSORS or David Sedaris’ NAKED.

What piece of advice could you have used back when you were an aspiring screenwriter?

To worry less about the format and more about the words. Honestly, if a script has terrific writing, no one will give a rat’s ass about the margins and sluglines. There’s far too much emphasis on doing things right, and not enough on doing things brilliantly. When you read a great script, the paper disappears and you feel like you’re watching a movie. That has nothing to do with 12 pt. Courier. It’s artful writing, and that’s the only crucial element