Sunday, November 29, 2015

Movies with great beginnings and disappointing middle and endings

A re-post from many years ago...

The 2010 movie, HEREAFTER, opens with an extraordinary sequence. You’ve probably seen the trailer. A giant tsunami rips through a Southeast Asian resort. SPOILER ALERT: You don’t want to be on the beach that day.

The giant wave advances past a luxury hotel and roars through the town, destroying everything in its wake. It’s awesome and terrifying. Sensational filmmaking. Fortunately for the actors, Clint Eastwood was directing. He usually gets it in two or three takes. Imagine poor Ms Cecile de France, who gets swept along like a rag doll, hearing: “Okay. From the top, everybody. Take 46. Cue the water!”

The only trouble with that sequence is… the rest of the movie is dull and lifeless by comparison. And it got me thinking about other movies that had amazing beginnings but fell flat after that. You go into a theater, it starts, you’re blown away, you think you’re in for a really great ride, and then the movie just fizzles.

Probably the greatest example of this is SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Spielberg’s depiction of the Normandy Invasion is maybe the most gripping twenty minutes on film. You watch it and say, “Y’know, I think I’d prefer the tsunami.” But once the doughboys land the movie turns into this trumped up story.

That first sequence was so effective that Spielberg could have come on the screen himself and said, “Well, folks. That’s what war is really like. Pretty fucking incomprehensibly horrific, wouldn’t you say? I don’t know what else there really is to add. I mean, every soldier had his own story and many are compelling and heartbreaking, but let’s face it – after that invasion – the scope and devastation – how am I gonna follow one or two guys and still have the same impact? I’m good but I’m no David Lean. So instead of making you sit for another hour and a half of “more of the same but not as good”, I’m gonna just let you go. I’m guessing these images I just showed you are going to stay with you for awhile. That’s good. Go have coffee and talk about the brutality of war. Maybe head home and go to that new internet thingy all the kids are raving about and search for information on D-Day. Anyway, thanks for coming. Sorry it was so short, but I’ll make it up to you. BRIDGE OF SPIES will be twice as long as it should be.”

What other movies can you think of that had great beginnings but never lived up to its promise? Here are a few that I can think of:

BODY HEAT – Steamy and sexy for the first twenty minutes. My glasses fogged up. If only they didn’t then get into the story.

Most of the last 20 Bond movies. Wow zowie action sequences that had nothing to do with the plot, followed by Tim Dalton or Pierce Brosnan thwarting supervillains and rescuing Denise Richards (who, we’re supposed to believe in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, is a noted nuclear physicist).

I loved the first half-hour of INDIANA JONES 4 (the real title is too long and doesn’t mean anything anyway). I wish Spielberg had broken in and made a speech in that one too.

FULL METAL JACKET – Stanley Kubrick’s first act in basic training was riveting. Then they go to Vietnam and since they couldn’t take the Drill Sergeant (the great R. Lee Ermey) along with them the movie goes flying off in fifteen different directions. Their “shit was definitely flaky” as the DI might say.

And finally, TOUCH OF EVIL – Disappointing movie and Charlton Heston playing a Mexican is laughable, but this opening tracking shot is nothing short of phenomenal. Especially when you consider it was made in 1958, well before Industrial Light & Magic. Directed by Orson Welles before he succumbed to ego and Pinks’ hot dogs.

Okay, so help me add to the list.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Fred & Ginger never did THIS

Fun video day continues. Check out this dance routine. Wow.

Adele is funny too

This is great.  For a BBC special they put out the call for Adele impersonators.  And then Adele herself posed as someone else and joined the audition.  Watch what happens.   How can anyone not love Adele?

Friday, November 27, 2015

(Black) Friday Questions

Here’s something to read as you stand in long lines today – this week’s (Black) Friday Questions. I need sweaters, by the way.  But not Cosby sweaters. 

Wendy M. Grossman begins:

A number of us have been seriously admiring Aya Cash's work on YOU'RE THE WORST (which you should all see, if you haven't). Someone opined that she has no chance at an Emmy nomination, however, because the network that broadcasts the show is the ultra-obscure FXX. Is this true, do you think? Does it hurt the chances of THE AMERICANS, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys that they're on FX? I know the main actors on JUSTIFIED never won anything - but Margo Martindale, guesting in season 2, did. I'd have thought that with shows on Amazon and Netflix winning awards we were entirely over that sort of snobbishness.

It’s not a matter of snobbishness; it’s a matter of too many choices. Getting Emmy voters to sample all these shows on all these networks and platforms is very difficult. Unfortunately, many worthy efforts fly under the radar.

Buzz and marketing are now more important than ever.

Most shows will now offer screeners to Academy voters and that helps a lot. There have been shows I had heard about but never seen, and then when the screeners came in I decided to give them a try. In some cases it affected my voting.

Ironically, I almost think that being on an obscure network is almost advantageous. There’s a cool factor. Broadcast network shows have a stigma these days, which is too bad because THE GOOD WIFE deserves way more recognition than it receives.

From Paul:

Ken: You've made your disdain for "Two Broke Girls" and your love of multi-camera sitcoms evident multiple times. If asked to write or direct and episode of "Two Broke Girls," one of a dwindling number of multi-cams on the air, would you?

Not that they’re ever going to ask me in a million years, but I would be happy to direct an episode. I love Kat Dennings and have worked with her before. I would not want to write an episode. I’m not the right guy for that assignment.

cadavra asks:

I've been to more than one taping where the star was well-known for his improv skills. After they had a satisfactory scripted take, they would then do a wild take with the star ad-libbing entirely new dialogue. I once went to a taping of the short-lived SHAKY GROUND, and Matt Frewer's new jokes were absolutely funnier than the written ones, but when the show aired, they used the less-funny scripted lines, which struck me as a case of the writers/producers' egos trumping a superior result (perhaps one reason the show didn't last very long). What do you think of their actions, and were you in this situation, what would you do?

I would say to the star either you trust my judgment and writing or get another writer. I don’t write lines to compete with actors’ ad libs.

Look, it’s not the actors’ job to save shows and elevate the writing. Their job is hard enough, requiring enormous skill and discipline. It’s my job to give them the best possible material so they really shine.

Understandably, it can get tough when a show is built around a star, especially a stand-up, and if he has input, that’s fine. But during rehearsal. Once cameras are rolling I don’t want my actors throwing off the crew (who depend on line cues to move), and I don’t want my actors showing up the writers.

As for the specific lines in SHAKY GROUNDS, I can’t say why the writers ultimately stuck with their original ones. Maybe it was out of spite, or maybe the ad lib lines – although funny – didn’t move the story ahead.   I have to say, I have not heard many bad things about Matt Frewer. And I loved him in ORPHAN BLACK.

And finally, from Mitchell Hundred:

What do you think of famous movie people coming in to direct the pilots of TV shows (e.g. Martin Scorsese directing the pilot of Boardwalk Empire)? How much of an effect does it have on the show as a whole?

Networks are star fuckers. There’s great prestige in getting top flight film directors to direct TV pilots. On one level I can see it. A pilot sets the template for the series and an A-lister can really establish the look and tone.  An A-lister is also very promotable, which is a big plus in launching a new series. 

On the other hand, there are a lot of terrific TV directors, who also know how to move quickly. Film directors are used to a much more leisurely production schedule.

And film directors are ridiculously expensive. How else are you going to get some of these guys? They come in, work a few weeks, make a pile of money, leave and never come back, and generally have part ownership of the show. Sweet deal.

What’s your Friday Question? Happy holiday weekend.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


Thanks for reading the last ten years.   I thought the blog party was cool, but now I see in New York there's a whole big PARADE.   With giant balloons and Broadway stars freezing their asses off.   And later there are football games.  Really?   That's above and beyond.    It's just one little blog -- to make today a National Holiday -- well, that's almost more gratitude than I deserve.  But I really appreciate it.  I think I'll have a big turkey dinner to celebrate.  And hey, I just got an idea.  Although I can't have all of you here, maybe if you had your OWN turkey dinner tonight it would feel like we were all celebrating together.  Just a thought.  Again, THANKS.    And happy holidays.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Best Of: 2015 -- What I look for in a spec pilot

Thus concludes my year-a-day look back at ten years of blogging.  Here's a post from earlier this year.  A popular feature has been advice to young writers who will thank me someday when they win an Emmy.  Next January I begin teaching a graduate course in pilot writing at UCLA.  Here are the kinds of points I'll be stressing:

A few years ago, David Isaacs and I wrote a pilot for a major network. The development executive was new to the job. We turned in our first draft and heard he was very happy with it. Instead of going to the network for notes we would just do a conference call. The notes would be minimal. All the stuff that’s music to writers’ ears.

At the appointed time he got on the phone and was hugely complimentary. “It’s amazing how you guys introduced the premise and characters and set up the story and it all flowed, it never felt forced. We learned a lot about the characters along the way, and you got it all in in 46 pages.”

I know the appropriate answer would have been thank you and leave it at that. But for some reason I couldn’t do that. What I said instead was this:

“Thank you. That’s great to hear. But… that’s the job. We were just fulfilling the assignment. All of your pilots should come back like that. If not, you’re hiring the wrong writers.”

He laughed and said I was probably right.

The point is, there is a level of craft that should go into pilots. Setting up the premise, introducing the characters, seamlessly weaving in the exposition, setting the tone, being funny, letting the audience know the direction the show will go in – these are REQUIREMENTS.

The trick is to do all of that and have the jokes be better, the characters more original, and the story more inventive than the other well-crafted pilots. What sets one pilot script above the others should be inspiration not professionalism.

Young writers today are being told to write pilots as their specs. The industry is looking for exciting new voices.

What am I looking for when I read a spec pilot? Exciting new voices are nice, but first I’m trying to determine if this person even has a clue. The basics have to be there. Can this person tell a story? Are his characters well-drawn? Are their actions properly motivated? Are the jokes organic to the characters and tone? Do the jokes move the story along?   If a writer can accomplish all that and have a fresh outlook that is genuinely funny then he’s hit a home run. But if the execution is amateurish the exciting “voice” gets lost.

Learn the basics.

Master the craft of pilot writing. Yes, they're difficult and the process is time consuming and frustrating. But the good news is you’re competing with lots of people out there whose scripts are a hopeless mess. When I told that network executive to hire better writers, I was referring to YOU.

Best of luck.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Best Of: 2014 -- How we plotted stories on MASH

The "Best Of" now moves to 2014.  One thing you readers said you especially liked was inside stories on how we made MASH.  So here's one from March 16, 2014.
MASH episodes tend to be complicated and I’m often asked how we plotted out stories. So here’s how we did it.

First off, we chose the best stories we could find – the most emotional, the most interesting the best possibilities for comedy. Plotting is worthless if you have a bad story. Chekhov would pull out his hair trying to make “B.J.’s Depression” work. (Side note: stories where your lead character is depressed generally don’t work in comedy. Moping around is not conducive to laughs. Better to make them angry, frustrated, lovesick, impatient, hurt – anything but depressed… or worse, happy. Happy is comedy death.)

We got a lot of our stories from research – transcribed interviews of doctors, nurses, patients, and others who lived through the experience. But again, the key was to find some hook that would connect one of our characters to these real life incidents.

Some of these anecdotes were so outrageous we either couldn’t use them or had to tone them down because no one would believe them.

For each episode we had two and sometimes three stories. If we had a very dramatic story we would pair it with something lighter. The very first MASH we wrote, Hawkeye was temporally blind and Hawk & Beej pulled a sting on Frank.

We would try to mix and match these story fragments so that they could dovetail or hopefully come together at the end.

All that stuff you probably knew. What you didn’t know is this:

We broke the show down into two acts and a tag. Each act would have five scenes. Brief transition scenes didn’t count. But go back through some episodes. Five main scenes in the first act and five in the second. As best we could we would try to advance both of our stories in the same scenes. But each story is different and we tried to avoid being predictable.

Usually, we wrapped up the heavy story last. That’s the one you cared most about.

The tag would callback something from the body of the show, generally drawing from the funny story.

And then we had a rather major restriction: We could only shoot outside at the Malibu ranch for one day each episode. So no more than 8 pages (approximately a third of the show). And that was in the summer when there was the most light. By September and October we could devote 6 pages to exteriors. And once Daylight Savings was over that was it for the ranch for the season. All exteriors were shot on the stage. So if we wanted to do a show where the camp is overrun by oxen we better schedule it for very early in the summer. Those 20th guards never let oxen onto the lot without proper ID.

If possible we tried to do at least one O.R. scene a show. We wanted to constantly remind the audience that above all else this was a show about war.

We always feared that a sameness would creep into the storytelling so every season we would veer completely away from our game plan for several episodes just to shake things up and keep you off the scent. That’s how all format-breaking shows like POINT OF VIEW, THE INTERVIEW, and DREAMS came about. And during our years we extended that to a few mainstream episodes. We did NIGHT AT ROSIE’S that was more like a one-act play. Everything was set in Rosie’s Bar. (I wonder if a series like that but set in Boston would work?) We moved them all to a cave. We did an episode set exclusively in Post-Op and assigned each of our characters to a specific patient. Letters-to-home was another nice device.

I should point out here that I didn’t come up with the MASH guidelines for storytelling. That was all Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds (pictured). We just followed the template. And for the record, in all my years in the business, no one is better at story than Gene Reynolds. It was amazing how he could zero in on problems and more impressively, find solutions. The story had to constantly move forward, it had to have flow, logic, surprises, the comedy had to real as well as funny, and most of all – the dramatic moments (especially during the conclusion) had to be earned.

So that’s how we did it, based on how they did it. And when I occasionally watch episodes of MASH from our years there are always lines I want to change or turns that could be made more artfully or humorously, but those stories hold up beautifully. Thank you, Gene Reynolds.

Monday, November 23, 2015


UNDATEABLE LIVE is unlike any sitcom I’ve ever worked on. And of course, I’m old enough that the first sitcom that ever put me on staff was run by Euripides. I’ve done single camera, multi-camera, block-and-shoot, tape, film, High-Def, and Greek Chorus, but I’ve never done one that aired live.

Last Friday I attended the broadcasts (I can’t say tapings) of UNDATEABLE LIVE after writing a post about the show saying I was curious to see what it’s like – the process and the contrasting experience of witnessing the broadcast and then seeing it on television.

This was my second attempt at this. Thankfully, there were no worldwide catastrophic events that caused cancellation. I understood why the producers and network cancelled last week and understand even more having now seen the process. It’s a party.

For a studio audience, it’s the best sitcom experience ever. Normally an audience will be there for at least three hours. Scenes are filmed multiple times and there are generally lengthy delays for costume changes, joke changes, and one light bulb goes out on the set necessitating six ladders, seven guys, and twenty minutes. With UNDATEABLE LIVE you’re in and out in ninety minutes tops. You sit down, a warm up guy gets you revved, there’s a band and musical guest, the cast is introduced, you watch the show ONCE, the musical guest does a few more numbers, and you go. Compare that with FRIENDS where it took so long to shoot an episode they literally had TWO audiences. After four or five hours the first audience was mercifully released and a new one took its place. Navy Seals in training are not put through that torture.

UNDATEABLE LIVE does two performances – one for the East Coast at 5:00 PM (8:00 back East) and 8:00 for the West Coast. Some changes are made between shows.

Me and Bill Lawrence
UNDATEABLE LIVE embraces the convention, which – what the hell? You might as well. Several of the cast members are stand ups, so they’re comfortable tossing out an ad lib now and again. And part of the fun of the show is watching to see if something unexpected happens – if an actor flubs a line, someone breaks up, the Messiah comes. There are meta lines where they occasionally break character and take shots at each others' career, and producers will sometimes give an actor a line intended to throw off another actor, but it’s clear viewers are watching the making of a television show; they’re not suspending belief and pretending there is a reality to the setting and situation. That’s the trade off, but again, what the hell? Their primary goal is to entertain so why not use all the tricks at their disposal?

Interaction is the key. They even give out a phone number and cast members have been known to talk to viewers during the broadcast. If only I could have called the Bionic Woman and asked her out.

The half-hour warm up is streamed on Periscope. Show runner Bill Lawrence also interacts with fans. Ironically, years ago only union photographers were allowed to take pictures on a sound stage. And now everyone including the dog is snapping photos and selfies.

Because of the looseness of the format and storytelling, scripts are only about 22 pages long. CHEERS scripts used to be almost double that. (Of course we also had more program time and no musical guests... except the Righteous Brothers).

Me and Phill Lewis
Unlike normal multi-camera shows where you have four cameras; UNDATEABLE LIVE has nine (eight standard cameras on rolling tripods and a hand-held). Credit to director Phill Lewis who can wrangle all of that and not emerge like Ozzie Osbourne after New Years Eve at a frat house. As a director myself, I can honestly say – a live sitcom is like working in the Hurt Locker but with more pressure.

During the show the writers all Tweet. The goal is to get the show trending. I remember Desi was very big on this during I LOVE LUCY’S heyday.

There is a running time that shows how many seconds or minutes they are over or under. During commercial breaks, Bill Lawrence goes out on the stage and makes cuts on the fly.

During the show it’s organized chaos. After the first scene they moved the bandstand and sixty people had to clear out. To my knowledge, no one was trampled. Even the network executives were forewarned. 

The show seems to go by like a shot. Of course, we’re not seeing the endless parade of commercials.

For the second show, they made cuts and added some new fun schtick designed to throw off the cast. Guest star Christa Miller (Bill Lawrence’s wife) grabs Chris D’Elia’s crotch. And Bianca Kajlich notes that when Christa was on THE DREW CAREY SHOW she was only five. (Christa was a good sport... and very funny.  It's not easy for a guest actor to join this insanity.)

I then went home and watched the West Coast version. It captures some of the craziness but not all. It’s obviously more of a delightful surprise when an actor says a line you know is an ad lib. Or when an actor does something physical that improves upon what he did in the first show. I imagine watching the Presicope pre-game and following the live-Tweets helps the home viewer feel like he’s part of the inner circle.

I love how experimental the show is, and wonder if I could make a suggestion? This occurred to me after watching the show on the air. I wonder, if one time, the audience could be told beforehand what tricks the writers have planned for the actors? The actors are off behind stage and Bill Lawrence or whoever takes fifteen seconds and tells the audience someone is going to grab Chris D’Elia’s crotch and Bianca and Bridget will be put on the spot. On the one hand you spoil the surprise, but on the other you have the fun that the audience is ahead of the actors. The audience might be more invested if they’re watching for these moments. I dunno. Could be a horrible idea.

Unfortunately, for UNDATEABLE it airs on a bad night and has an awful show that follows it. The audience for UNDATEABLE is out dating on Friday night. And 8:00 is a little early for some of the humor. The ratings have been bad, but what can you expect? What I’d like to see is NBC airing it one night after THE VOICE to really give the show a chance to prove itself. I don’t think NBC could get numbers Friday night at 8:00 with Kardashian sex tapes.

Thanks to Chris Luccy, the staff, and Bill Lawrence for letting me hang out. Usually you never like to look behind the curtain, but in this case, I wish everyone could. You need enormously skilled people to pull off a live sitcom – from the actors who get thrown new lines at the last minute, to the director who must adjust to changes live on the air, to the cameramen who have no second chances if they blow a shot – everyone is a tightrope artist and yet somehow they make it seem easy. The behind-the-show is awesome, and the show itself is getting there.

Best Of: 2013 -- The Kickstarter controversy

As we march towards this blog's tenth anniversary, reprising a post a year, there can be only one for 2013.  When I wrote this on May 7, 2013 taking Zach Braff to task for using Kickstarter to fund his new movie I received LITERALLY one million hits that day.  Talk about going viral.  Yikes.   Hopefully today I'll get eleven.  

NOTE: Later today I will post my account of watching UNDATEABLE LIVE, ironically from Bill Lawrence who also did SCRUBS, which starred you-know-who.   It's amazing how this all ties together.  Please check back. 

Zach Braff is trying to raise money on Kickstarter to fund a movie he wants to make. Zach Braff is a good actor and a fine filmmaker. GARDEN STATE was a terrific movie. But I wouldn’t give him a dime.


Because it defeats the whole purpose of Kickstarter.

The idea – and it’s a great one – is that Kickstarter allows filmmakers who otherwise would have NO access to Hollywood and NO access to serious investors to scrounge up enough money to make their movies. Zach Braff has contacts. Zach Braff has a name. Zach Braff has a track record. Zach Braff has residuals.  He can get in a room with money people. He is represented by a major talent agency. But the poor schmoe in Mobile, Alabama or Walla Walla, Washington has none of those advantages.

So someone who otherwise might have funded the Mobile kid instead will toss his coins to Zach Braff because he figures it’s a better bet and he gets to rub shoulders with show business.

Yes, it might take Zach Braff a year of knocking on doors to get his money, so now he figures, hey, just show up, sit back, and let the cash come to me. This is not an option Walla Walla kid has. I’m throwing my support to those who really NEED it.

Recently, Kickstarter was used to fund a new VERONICA MARS movie. This is obscene to me. It’s a known television series distributed by a major studio. Are you a big fan of VERONICA MARS? Want to support it? Great. Buy ten tickets and see the movie ten times.

This is what Hollywood does, dear reader. It sees an opportunity for exploitation and takes it. The Sundance Film Festival is another prime example. At one time it showcased modest little movies by unknown filmmakers. Kevin Smith made CLERKS – a grimy black and white film starring all unknowns. The result was discovered talent. Now look at the festival. Every entry features major Hollywood stars. During the festival they all descend upon Park City, along with Harvey Weinstein, reps from every major studio, and a thousand CAA and William Morris agents. Any hint of the original purpose of the film festival has long since vanished.

If Will Ferrell or Brad Pitt – just to name two random examples – are in an independent film, do they really need a film festival to get Harvey Weinstein to screen their film? The chubby nerd from New Jersey who maxed out his credit cards to make a film about a local convenience store couldn’t. He needed a film festival. He needed an audience to appreciate his effort before he could be recognized. And now today’s equivalent of a young Kevin Smith can’t even get his movie into a festival much less Harvey Weinstein’s screening room.

Sundance is a lost cause. But Kickstarter isn’t. Not if we put a stop to this now. If you only have so much money to give to charity, give it to cancer research and not to help redecorate Beyonce’s plane. Support young hungry filmmakers. The next Kevin Smith is out there… somewhere. He (or she) just needs a break, which is what Kickstarter is supposed to provide. Zach Braff can find his money elsewhere. He did once before. He’ll make his movie. And if it’s half as good as GARDEN STATE I will praise it to the heavens in this blog and urge you to go spend your money to check it out.

When I used to broadcast for the Orioles one of my partners was the legendary Chuck Thompson. Most of our games were at night. Chuck was an avid golfer. He played the public courses and only on weekdays. He used to say the weekends were for the “working man.” Chuck could play any day he wanted, they could only play on Saturday and Sunday so he didn’t want to take one of their starting times. It’s a great way to live by.

Kickstarter is for the “working man,” Zach. And VERONICA. And (soon) Harvey.