Monday, January 7, 2008

Hollywood, Week 3: The Woman with Two Brains

June 2005

The Warner Brothers megalopolis takes up blocks and blocks of Burbank—all of it neatly landscaped, carefully guarded, and tidily obscured by neatly groomed shrubbery and gates and security guards. I work for Warner Brothers now—the logo that I always associated with Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam now adorns my weekly paycheck. But aside from that reminder, little else connects me to WB. Although the studio is omnipresent, I drive away from the country-club media enclave on my way to work. The headquarters for Veronica Mars—the UPN show I’ve been hired to write for-- are located on a tiny, quasi-industrial street in North Hollywood—a.k.a NoHo—an area remarkable only for the immensity of its potholes and the discount liquor stores on every corner (the one on our block, Circus Liquors, features a 20 foot neon clown.) We share our street with a mysterious warehouse that is undoubtedly a porn studio and a donut factory that stinks up the neighborhood.

Although technically our work day begins at 10 a.m., it’s usually 10:30 or 11:00 before we get to the Writers Room. In my old life, 11 a.m. marked the halfway point of my workday, and I sometimes don’t know what to do with this down time at work. I get up at 6 a.m., go to the gym for an hour, return home to read/pet Stynki/watch the news and then still get to work a half an hour early. But frankly, there’s not that much to do—no mail to go through, no scripts to revise (so far), no lessons to plan, calls to make, or meetings to arrange. It’s a little disconcerting. The other writers are often early, too, but generally hang around in their offices and I obsess that they’re doing something I should be doing. Chances are, they’re surfing the ‘net or sending email, but I’m paranoid that they’re writing The Best Veronica Mars script ever, the one that will awe Rob, stun the network, and capture the Emmy, and send me back to Bellingham.

Writing for television is unlike any writing venture I’ve ever been involved in. The six of us—me, Diane Ruggiero, John Enbom, Phil Klemmer, Dayna North, and Rob-- “coffee up,” join forces around the conference table, and then Rob claps his hands together and throws out the challenge of the day—so far we’ve been “breaking story” (creating a three-part narrative arc with specific “beats” or plot points) for the first few episodes of the new season. The brainstorming list morphs into specific choices about the plot and the characters, and then we break that list into a “cold open,” –the brief hook that precedes the title sequence of the show—and the “beats”—plot points—for the four acts. Each act is timed according to commercial breaks and ends with an “act out”—a minor cliffhanger that will draw the audience back. The writer assigned to the episode writes a “one-pager”—a 1-2 page explanation of the story that is sent to network execs for comments. Rob argues with them about changes, and we negotiate revisions. Eventually, the script is written and drafts are sent to the network, revisions are made, final scripts are distributed, and magic is made.

One of the strangest things I’ve encountered so far, besides the fact that my co-workers wear sweatpants to work and use the word “cocksucker” regularly, is that we don’t talk about the process—there’s no discussion of writing so far, just storytelling. And it’s intense, fast-paced talking—people chiming in around the table with “What if…?” and “Maybe…” pitching ideas that are received by co-execs Rob and Diane with enthusiastic “that fucking rocks!” or the sort of silent-lip-twisting that requires no words. I’m used to faculty meetings and in-services where I could complete crossword puzzles and write silly notes to my co-workers and make grocery lists. In the Writers’ Room, mind-wandering like this, even for a few seconds, means losing the thread of the developing story and spending the rest of the hour trying to figure it out without asking dorky questions.

I often feel, sitting around the table, that I should be contributing more to the discussion. I’ve always considered my writing strengths to be voice and character development, not plotting. But in the two weeks I’ve worked with the VM team, I’ve learned to be a more attentive listener, to sit still and absorb the complexities of the growing plot, and to think in terms of “beats” and “misleads”—to seek out the clever action or twist, and add what I can. I spend a lot of time sitting in awe of my co-writers—Enbom always, always has the quickest, wittiest quips, and Klemmer is an ace at following the logic of a storyline and revealing its problems. Dayna is a stream-of-consciousness brainstormer whose talkativeness often leads to a brilliant plot development. Diane is the courageous one, pushing us past the easy answer to the more tasty beat. Rob, however, is the true brain behind VM—the engineer who sits quietly and patiently, listens to our ideas, takes no notes, and then busts out with, “That’s excellent—I love it—here’s what we’re going to do…” I’m the quiet one right now, believe it or not, the thoughtful, nodding, pensive newcomer whose contributions are infrequent and so far, often off the mark. But I’m also a learner and a thinker. And I’m loosening up. I’m finding my niche, slowly, but certainly.

I pass the walls of the Warner Brothers compound as I drive home each day. They are adorned with posters the size of swimming pools advertising their classic successes—Gone With the Wind, Terminator—their TV hits—The West Wing, Smallville—and their current releases—Batman Begins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Must Love Dogs. In another life, this gigantic advertising would have sent me into a rant about commercialism and the effects of TV and movies on the human brain. But that was then. This is now. I’ve been on the job three weeks, and this is how my brain has changed: when I see those gargantuan advertisements, instead of cringing at the media and its deplorable subjugation of the American mind, I see those posters and smile. All I can think is that there are so many stories. And so many amazing, entertaining ways to tell them. How lucky I am to be among the storytellers.

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