Friday, August 15, 2014

The Perils of Co-Writing

My husband is an actor. Of sorts.  Julio has been background or stand-in for Arnold, Sylvester, Brad, Jason (Statham and Momoa), and pretty much all of the biggies.

He has also done theater where he was dressed as the Easter Bunny, as well as has numerous indie films (translation, mostly unpaid) under this belt. The last indie film he was in took 3rd place at the New Orleans 48-Hour Film Festival, which was a great accomplishment for all involved because it was their first time at this particular rodeo.

Julio as the Easter Bunny
He has also done several local commercials, one so convincing everyone keeps asking to borrow money from us because they really believe he got $100,000 in a car wreck from a personal injury settlement.  

For a while we have been discussing writing a short for him. A short would be great for both of us. It would be a great thing to put on his reel to submit when he auditions because I could write something other than the roles he usually gets typecast in-- the thug, the drug dealer, the prisoner, the killer.  All interesting roles, but sort of stereotypical for a large, dangerous-looking Hispanic male.  I could write something that would allow him to show a host of different emotions.  And it would be good for me because my name would be on it.

Julio with Stanley Tucci
I've written a few screenplays, some of them have even won awards, but none have yet been optioned or produced.

While working on indie films, Julio met a valuable contact, a producer/director who has pitched to major network t.v. shows and has had a reality t.v. show produced.  He liked one of my pilots.  But more than that he liked an idea for a short that Julio and I have been tossing around for awhile.  He liked it the way Julio pitched it to him, however, as a t.v. series and is interested in pitching it to a network. Which means we need to start writing it.

I say we, but I mostly mean me. Julio has great ideas, but he doesn't write. Most of the time he doesn't write the ideas down, but tells them to me and expects me to keep them organized like a human card catalog.  And to be honest, organization is a skill I struggle with on a daily basis.

Julio as a Dough Boy in Aztec Warrio
So we have just begun the process.  Julio doesn't know the pain of the writing process. He doesn't start at the beginning, but spouts off all of these ideas about things that are going to happen in different episodes.

Last night we began to finally work together to get the thing on paper. I tried to explain to him that he first needs to understand structure.  Personally, I am not a fan of structure. My goal when I was much younger (much, much younger) was to be this creative genius that broke all the rules in order to fully develop my art.

Newsflash--people who watch t.v. shows don't give a crap about my desire to develop my art.  They want to know what to expect in their weekly cop show, or their weekly comedy, or their weekly night time soap.

They don't want to know in advance what's going to
happen, you know, all those things Julio has pinned down, but they want to know that the first 30 second to 2 minutes is going to set up the plot, that every week there's a different story, or every week there's a new illness or enemy or alien to conquer, or every week there's going to be a murder before the first commercial.

They don't realize they know this or expect this, but if it doesn't happen the way they have anticipated, which has a whole lot to do with why they like the show in the first place, they might not tune in next week.

Julio as a detective on Common Law 

So for me, character is first, at least the protagonist and antagonist.  Then, I try to think about what the big picture is, the reason I'm writing this particular story in this particular way.

Then I try to decide the structure, what is the A-plot, B-plot, and is there going to be a C-plot?

Is there something that is going to repeat every week, such as a flashback, a voice over, talking to a dead relative at a grave, a goodnight John Boy?  Is there going to be something consistent that if and when it fails to happen, it means something.

Then I start with the details of what is going to happen in each episode. And these, too, I map out, so that I can make sure my character has an arc, and the story has an arc, through the first season, and through the end of the show. And if I have more than one primary character, they also need an arc.

Julio thinks you can just come up with ideas about what's going to happen and start writing it. Maybe some people work that way, but it sure doesn't lend itself well to t.v. series writing.  Then again, maybe he just gives me a lot more credit than I deserve when it comes to my ability to create a screenplay or a novel or even a legal brief. As much as I love to write, it requires time and work.

Julio as a thug
And then we came to the biggest crossroads of all--we couldn't seem to agree on the genre or subgengre, other than it's going to be an hour long show, which means it has to be a drama or a dramedy.  We discussed this at length, him making it seem like an edgy soap opera to me.  I pictured it more as a dark comedy.

Finally, I asked him to tell me a song that gave him the feeling of the series. I am thinking tone and mood.  This is how I write, especially for scenes that are difficult, such as emotional or embarrassing scenes. I find music or songs that fit the tone and mood. This doesn't mean the lyrics have anything to do with the story, it's the feeling the song in general evokes.

So of course, I was unable to come up with the words tone and mood and he gave me songs that were heavy and depressing because the lyrics described the character. It took us an hour of back and forth before we finally understood what each other was talking about, and that neither of us was actually talking about the same thing, but finally realized we are on the exact same page as far as tone and mood, subgenre, and protagonist.

Julio marrying George Clooney in Vegas
After that, we came up with some of the structural issues I need to begin the process, and came up with the big picture and the character arcs for the first season and the arc for the entire series. Not that it won't be fine tuned, but that hour of frustration and of sometimes getting snarky and snippy and raising our voices eventually led us off to a great start.

I am not a fan of co-writing. I like to write what I want to write, how I want to write it. But I figure one day I may get a paid job writing a script for t.v. or a movie, and it will be whatever the person paying me wants me to write, whether it's my way or not. So I guess it's good practice.  Plus, if this producer does manage to get this show optioned, a lot more doors will open for me as a writer.

So although co-writing is perilous, we're not talking divorce yet, so I guess we'll keep going and see how it turns out.