Monday, January 7, 2008

Hollywood, Weeks 11 and 12: Karma Repairs and Story Problems

August 29, 2005

For the first time since I was toilet-trained, I won’t be going to school in September. For 32 years, I’ve spent my life in the care of educators—parents, teachers, colleagues. There’s a lot I miss about the going-back-to-school rituals—the new clothes, boxes of books to be unpacked, a new Tolkien-themed READING: MAKE IT A HOBBIT bulletin board to put up in the library. More than anything, I miss the routine. There was comfort in knowing precisely when the work day began and ended—there were no questions about My Time and The Man’s Time. Flag salute at 7:55, lunch at 11:50, I-5 at 2:59:59.

Each day this week, we spent six to seven solid hours in the Writers’ Room, breaking the story for episode six. By 5:30 or 6, the writers’ table was an archaeological exhibit of the day’s efforts: littered with empty coffee mugs, candy wrappers, used-up dry-erase markers, and take-out containers. It’s a testament to both our intensity and the occasional periods of collective mental paralysis we experience as we sit silently, all six of us equally stumped by a glitch in the plot, relieved only by Barq’s and Starburst. For long stretches we sat zombie-like, willing a solution to appear out of the ether. I cursed myself for not having read—or remembered—more books. Surely the answer was out there in some true-crime book or detective novel that I’d read and forgotten. If only I could sneak away to quickly skim The Stranger Beside Me or Helter Skelter.

Among the story problems that did get solved this week was the completion of the production draft of the episode I co-wrote with Phil Klemmer. This is the version which, having cleared Rob, the network, and the studio, is sent to San Diego to the production crew, who will read it and begin securing props, locations, and wardrobe. Over the next few weeks, this draft will change—we might need to add Back-up to a scene, or change the location of a conversation, or remove references to brand-name products. All of the characters’ names have to clear our legal department. Databases are searched to determine if a name is common enough (like Anna Johnson) to be used without repercussions, or if it is too rare (like Bartholomew Quimperhead) and might be the subject of a lawsuit if the real owner of the name freaked out and didn’t want to be portrayed as a whiskey-guzzling Jazzercise™ teacher with pierced nipples.

Reading the production draft was a bit like recalling a weeks-old dream—there were large portions I remembered writing, but some words had been altered, or lines clipped, or scenes combined for cost efficiency or to accommodate a change that had been made in the previous episode. I found myself rejoicing when I read a line that appeared in the production draft exactly as I’d written it—a little cheer of “yippee! that didn’t suck!” arose in my throat. 99.9% of the time, my co-writers improved on whatever lame turd of an idea I originally produced, and I feel humbled to work in the presence of people whose grasp of language and story is so much snappier and smarter than my own. (This one time, in BFE, I was one of the funniest people I knew. Now I’m Susie-Not-So-Sassy. Can you say Little Fish, Big Pond?).

Work has become much busier as episodes go to production and the first airdate (Wednesday, September 28 at 9pm on UPN) approaches. Rob is often called away to choose music or attend casting sessions, so we come in early to get time with him at the table. The writers’ assistant and I have been assigned the task of updating parts of UPN’s Veronica Mars website ( –we’re writing the “Case Files” section, which is basically a recap of the episodes from last season, written in Veronica’s voice. It’s actually a very fun project, but it requires squeezing in moments to re-read scripts and devoting my evenings to watching my decaying videotapes of the show, which really cuts into my RU the Girl viewing time.

As the show is filmed on location in San Diego, DVDs of the day’s taping are delivered to our office each afternoon. These “dailies” offer a unique window into how TV gets made. Each scene in a script is filmed again and again from different angles, and the scenes are filmed out of narrative sequence—all of the school scenes are shot, then the scenes at the bordello (just kidding), then the scenes at Mars Investigations, etc. The editing crew later pieces them together in correct order and so that the perspective shifts to focus on the character who is speaking. Multiple takes also insure that the best delivery of a line makes it into the final version, and allows the editors to eliminate mistakes—Rob laughing in the background, for example, or an actor fumbling a line or sneezing. Watching the dailies makes me appreciate just how much work and talent are required to produce a quality TV show. It’s an amazing, labor-intensive process.

When we’re not at the table, I work alone in my office, my ears plugged, my headspace filled with the voices of Veronica, Logan, Wallace, Duncan, Keith, Sheriff Lamb, and the other imaginary people who make up our world. It’s tough work—sometimes I can’t even channel my own self, let alone a dozen make-believe identities. But it’s fun work, too, despite the occasional—and sometimes audible—frustrations. One of my co-workers overheard me sigh one day while I was writing and asked, “Why the heavy sigh? You’re living the dream life!” I am living a dream life, that’s for sure—a surreal and strange expedition out of the ordinary and into a whole new world, where there is so much to learn and laugh and think about, that sometimes it’s all I can do to remember to stop and breathe.

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