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This blog tends to wander from its main purpose -- updates on my fiction. I do have updates and excerpts of my work. But I also write about my obsessions -- food, friends and pop culture and my weird life in Los Angeles. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Trek Verdict, More Fun and Writing with Ron Moore

Warning: If you find yourself here via a google search for such things as TV shows or films, recipes or cities, this blog has some facts. However, this blog is one author’s very twisted musing on many weird things. It is sometimes graphic in content. If you read on, don’t write to yell at me.

This blog has become something different from the norm. I was not expecting to create an epic essay on television writing, but that was kind of fun. The usual craziness and crankiness is in there, too. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. It’s going to be a long trip.

Star Trek Verdict
Because I was in Trekkies and associated with conventions and wrote copious amount of naughty fanfiction, I’ve been asked a lot about my opinion on the new film. It’s also come up because of having worked with Karl Urban on The Privateers. I didn’t think the film was a good idea right now. The last series didn’t fare very well and the last film, Star Trek: Nemesis also under performed. It was less than 10 years ago. I think I’ve reached a point with Star Trek that I reached with James Bond (I’ve followed that since my grade school days as well). I’m just not interested in continuing, even for a new configuration. I can’t say I’ve liked any of the Next Generation films, so I had no vested interest in how like or not like Star Trek this film is. I don’t have a lot of time to go to movie theaters. Thus, I’d rather see something that I haven’t seen before. In the spy movie genre, that was and is Bourne. In sci-fi, it was Galactica. If I’m going to spend my entertainment bucks on action/adventure, it’ll have Giant Robots like Transformers (I've recently discovered a profound weakness for giant robots) or hot, well toned men in tight rubber unitards like GI Joe. I’ll certainly catch Star Trek as a DVD at some point, and I hope this leads to more films for Karl Urban. But beyond that, I’m just Trekked out.

Month of Fun Continues

This week brought unexpected pleasures of all kinds. The Archive began acknowledging staff birthdays with trays of fudgy brownies and a big tray of gourmet cookies. That made for a few days of fun, and I really needed the chocolate to get through a couple of those days. We indulged in a rare weekday breakfast of challah bread French toast with cinnamon-honey butter (I was actually in a good mood during the commute after having that). On Friday, I consoled myself about not being in France with information on this year’s Cannes which is a little less glamorous than years past because the downturn has impacted even the expense accounts of movie execs. I know it’s bitchy to be happy about that just because I’m not there. Envy is not a pretty thing. Why was I thinking about that on Friday? It was May 8th, which is also V-E Day. I thought it was also a Holy Day of Obligation, but according to my Anges ou Demons 2009 calendar (a French calendar of naked men, Holy Days, Feast Days and national holidays) that I enjoy consulting (Merci Sylvette!), that 8th is in December. Why is V-E Day a problem for tourists in France? They still celebrate that very important date in Europe with parades and spectacular fly overs the Arc De Triomphe. Thus, finding an open restaurant has been a challenge. We always did. And in fact, I think fondly on that day because we found some very charming places to dine by just poking around the neighborhood we happened to be staying in. Fond memories.

My birthday is tomorrow. It’s a regular workday with the usual extra craziness with our film gigs. We’ll probably have some fun appetizers and a little bubbly that day. Maybe some chocolate. But I’m holding off on the seafood and dessert extravaganza for next weekend and a dinner reservation at one of my favorite restaurants here. I have to pace myself.

Jon has put together the rough opening sequence for Blood Oath. As it happens in editing rooms, it turned out quite differently that I expected. However, I really like it. He’s almost through the first pass on the entire presentation. That makes me excited. Meanwhile I’m wrestling with how many love scenes will be in the episodes after the pilot and how much will be seen in them. The network getting the pitch has no problem with copious skin or explicit action, but I want to balance the erotic with the characters outside the bedroom. I have the books to do endless sexual gymnastics. And I want readers to have a reason to buy them. I also don’t want Blood Oath to be defined by just sex. It’s been an interesting dilemma for someone with my reputation. The third episode, Homecoming is almost complete. I may stop there for the pitch to the network or I may continue to a full six episode. At the very least, I know I’ll do treatments for three more. Whether I flesh them out or not will depend on what the films are doing in the next couple of weeks. And no, I have no idea what the films are doing right now.

Below is a very long essay on the ups and down in writing for TV. I think it is fascinating and I have been profoundly influenced by it. The examples are from Battlestar Galactica, but you need not have seen it at all to follow. For those that are not inclined, see you next week!

Realities of Writing

But I didn’t mope about where I wasn’t for very long. I’ll probably do that later. On Tuesday, Ralph found a WGA event listed on the Breakdowns. It was a discussion of writing with Ron Moore, Showrunner, and a friend of ours. I befriended Ron through Sophie La Porte, a freelance writer and close associate of Richard Hatch. I sent Ron some tailored erotica. The rest is history. We even interviewed him way back to run one of the incarnations of the Privateers. He is one of the most insightful and honest people I've met in television. I really loved the idea of an evening listening to him talk about the process of writing a series we greatly admired. The talked turned out to be more about the writing process than the show itself.

Let me wander a bit here. After we screened the Privateers for our crew and some suits, one of the women who'd been very helpful through the entire, hellish shoot told me that she had enjoyed the experience a great deal, she didn't want to do anything like that again. Nor did she want to know anything about the behind the scenes info on any of her favorite shows. Knowing how a production actually worked stripped away too much of the magic for her. I had run into that kind of sentiment before, but there wasn't the same level of honesty. I've vainly tried to tell fans at conventions that there were mundane production reasons behind strange plot twists on their favorite shows. While they didn't jam their fingers in their ears and shout until I shut up, they really weren't listening either. The discussion we went to see was by a writer for writers. It was honest and unvarnished. There were fans a- plenty in the audience, but Ron's attitude was that if you wanted to keep the magic, don't delve too deeply into the reality of the production. In other words, don’t peek behind the curtain.

The first surprise for us was that the key element of the new series (Cylons look like humans) was a purely financial decision. They realized that they couldn’t have the clunky robot suit with a guy in it. If they could build a more sophisticated suit that moved quickly and realistically, they could only build one. CG Cylons were considered, but having them interact with the cast would be expensive as well. They kept coming back to human looking Cylons. That decision lead to more questions. If they look like humans, why do they want to kill humans. The answer that they were created by humans begets the question of why do they want to destroy their creators? What did humans do? Throughout the series, more questions that raised the dramatic stakes were spawned. What is really human? Why do humans deserve to survive? All of the drama that grew from these questions began with a purely economic decision.

According to Ron, the look of the show (clothing and furniture that are current rather than futuristic) was to give the series a sense of being in a real place. That’s certainly true, but it also is an economic decision. To have futuristic sets and costumes give that sense of real costs heaps of money each week. As it was, the original plan of having more episodes happen entirely on other ships (one on the hospital ship – I didn’t know there was supposed to a hospital ship another on a refugee ship). The cost of doing Bastille Day put the show in the red for many episodes. After that, the Galactica was the main set. In the case where one is on a Cylon vessel for an entire episode, consider what of the ship is actually shown. We figured Cylons invented projection to get away from that threadbare ship.

There were other writing challenges beyond the financial. Ron said that they always knew where the show was going (that it would end in Earth’s distant past), but in getting there, the writing team encountered many false starts and detours. It’s clear that the cast caused some of the changes. Helo, for example, was supposed to dies in the miniseries on Caprica. His performance was so strong that they kept him, and the whole plot involving him and Athena was hatched. That willingness to be flexible made for excellent drama and got all the cast involved in the production (more on the work atmosphere below), but it also caused some problems that had to be solved in the writing. The biggest of these that caused the most speculation among the fans was about the Cylon model 7, Daniel. His story was created to correct a discrepancy in the number of humanoid Cylon models. Caprica-Six said that there were 12 models. However, it was said that there were eight models in the fleet and a final five. That’s thirteen. Daniel’s story was created purely to cover that error. Unfortunately, some fans were enchanted by the possibilities of this character and his relationship to the unanswered mysteries surrounding Starbuck as the series went into the finale. The rise of the ‘Cult of Daniel’ caused Ron to say flat out that the character was a writing construct to solve a math problem. Likewise, the last, enigmatic words spoken by ‘head’ Batltar were a function of air- time. The scene was running too long. It actually didn’t mean anything at all.

The problems didn’t end with the scripts. The editing room was another place where plots and plans had to be adjusted for the sake of the big picture. The editing room was another challenge. There were episodes that ran a lot faster and more smoothly in the director’s cut, but as BSG was a serial, certain scenes had to appear even if they slowed the pace or made the narrative more clunky, because they were very important to an episode three weeks later. A writer can put all he thinks an episode needs in a script, but it’s what shows up in the editing bay that is important to how the final episode actually looks. As a writer, Ron also had to be an editor to keep the show heading toward its final destination.

But it wasn’t all the sort of surprises that can bring a fan up short. When asked what sort of Emmy he hoped for Galactica’s last season, Ron said he’d like to see it win for best drama. The show winning would be an award for everyone from Ron down to craft services. He said that everyone in the production took ownership of the show and gave their all. Prop people would make an extra effort to make sure the background was right. Edward James Olmos was directing extras on how they should behave (I really wish there was some way to replicate Ron’s highly amusing impersonation of ‘Eddie.’ I still think of the man as Lieutenant Castillo. It was a bit unnerving, but very funny. All of the actors were fully engaged in their work as were the writers. Ron said everyone caused the show to catch lightning in a bottle. It’s the kind of work environment he really enjoyed and hoped he could find again. I was glad to hear that. It’s great to hear that a show that brought so much pleasure was a pleasure to make.

When asked about the initial reaction to the re-imagining by fans of the original show, Ron mentioned that the reaction was very much like that CSI episode, A Space Oddity. The crowd reaction went from hostile to worse through the course of the Q and A. There was even one fan on the BSG bulletin boards whose icon was a cut-out of Ron’s head with his brains being blown out.

As for his personal writing habits, Ron said that when he was on Star Trek: The Next Generation, he wrote in the office and in silence. When he worked on Deep Space Nine, he had to write only to Sinatra music. The showrunner, Ira Steven Behr, had gotten him into it. Next, he wrote to sound tracks. Currently, he can write while listening to takes from scenes of a previous episode or in the midst of bedlam on a set. It doesn’t really matter. I was heartened by this as I grew up writing in a distracting environment. Thus, I write while listening to 70s detective shows. My current favorite is Hawaii Five-O. The moderator asked about his religious influences. Ron admitted to being a wandering Catholic and that may have informed some aspects of BSG characters and their beliefs (For the record, I called that – Cylons are Catholic. I recognized the neuroticism being one myself). When asked what sort of advice he’d have for aspiring writers, Ron said that they should try to find ways of subverting form or content or both to surprise the viewer. There may be only a finite number of plots, but there are endless ways of telling them. They strove to find new ways of touching and challenging the viewers. That’s what he was most proud of with BSG.

For me, it was great to hear the talk. I hadn’t seen him since the premier of the mini-series. There was one part that talk that irritated me though. Ron mentioned that he hired two of his writers after having run into them in the DGA lobby after the premier for the mini-series. I was in the lobby of that premier as well. Something I reminded him of rather pointedly when he greeted me after the talk. I let it pass for that moment. I know where he works. We talked briefly about Caprica en route to the lobby. That show will be quite intriguing, I’m sure. But I cannot say what he told me about it right now.

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