Monday, 17 October 2011

Hollywood Babble On & On #823: Sometimes It's The Execution

Today I'm going to start with a little story.

About 10 years ago, in the early days in the interwebs I joined a screenwriting website where people would read and review each others scripts. One of the scripts assigned to me was for a thriller.  The main plot was that a Hollywood agent was being threatened by a disgruntled ex-or-rejected client, and a former actor turned police detective has to investigate and things get complicated when bodies start popping up.

That was the gist of it.

The script was extremely serious, and you could tell that the writer wanted to create a sexy thriller like Basic Instinct, however, it wasn't particularly sexy, and it wasn't thrilling.

However, in keeping with my standing as the sweetheart of the internet* I decided to not just say "You suck!" and move on.  There was a struggling young writer's hopes and dreams wrapped up in all this, so I tried to be constructive.  I broke his script down to its basic elements, and created detailed notes for each element on how to turn his non-thrilling thriller into what I believed to be a pretty sharp satire of Hollywood, fame, the temptations and tribulations that lie therein, and the sheer inefficiency of the whole system.

Well, the script's writer did not care for my assessment, or my advice.  He responded by calling me three kinds of idiot who wouldn't know a good script if it bit him on the ass.... yadda.... yadda.... yadda....

Shows what he knew, I'm not three kinds of idiot, I'm a smug internet know-it-all. The poor guy also didn't know was that he was sitting on the first draft of what could have been a good comedy, but his execution of the story as a thriller was a failure.

I was reminded of this incident by seeing other examples of something that had a germ of something that might have worked, but was sunk by the execution of the idea.

Take for example NBC's recent disaster The Playboy Club.  It had one good thing going for it, the setting of Chicago in the early 1960s.  It's a great setting for an ongoing serial drama, because it had politicians, bagmen, gangsters, cops and the women who loved them all vying for power both political and personal in a setting that seems exotic to our modern eyes.

Call it Windy City, and get some good writers working on it, and it might have caught on.  You could have even had some scenes set at the Playboy Club, because the real club was a popular hangout of certain big shots of that era.

Sadly, an opportunity was missed.  Instead of making the series a wide open drama of crime and politics they, be it the creators or the network, opted to make it extremely limited in both scope and potential.  They did this by centering the on one place that itself is centered on a brand, Playboy, that's more of a pop-culture archaeological curiosity than an audience winner.  They thought "Mad Men Meets Sex & The City With Girls in Bunny Outfits" and expected a hit.

Instead they had a bomb. 

It's not the first time I saw this happen.  A while back NBC (do you see a trend forming here) had a show called Kings.  It was set in an alternate reality where America was the absolute monarchy of Gilboa.
That's actually a very good idea for a show.  It allows you to take the familiar (translation: inexpensive present day settings) and remake it into an exotic feast for the imagination.  Plus, royal houses are rife with salacious soap opera story-lines and monarchical treachery. There's also literally centuries of material, called history, to draw inspiration from.

And that's where they made their mistake.

Instead of looking into European Royal courts, the Roman Empire, or the Byzantine antics of the... well... Byzantines, the creators went to the Bible, specifically the story of King David in the Old Testament.

I'm not knocking the Bible as a source of drama.  What I am knocking is the baggage that comes with using it as source material for what isn't an explicitly religious show.  One side of the audience would see the soapy goings on as trivializing their faith, and stay away, while the other side would hear of its Biblical roots, assume it was going to be a lecture in the guise of TV drama, and stay away.  Which both sides did.

You see, it was a good idea that was hampered by its execution.

So how can one avoid this trap?

Well, it's really hard to do.  Sometimes we get so caught up in how we see a project, we can't see the potential of viewing it from another angle.  I guess the best way is to view every idea with an open mind, and try to see it from as many opposing views to watch out for any creative landmines and pitfalls that might await you.

*"We don't know why he keeps calling himself that, he is neither sweet, or in possession of a heart in the romantic/sympathetic sense, and hence this blog claim has no basis in reality." 

-- Furious D Show Legal Dept.


  1. KINGS could have been a hit, the religious aspect aside, the Story of David, I a GOOD story, I read the bible through Army BCT, most of the book is put it best DRECK. But the rise and fall of King David as the trappings of a political thriller. I young soldier who no one took seriously, becomes and unlikely hero. gathers fame and power which pisses off a jealous King who is barely holding grasp of his.

  2. Another rule for an aspiring artist, listen to advice. You never know someone's outside idea might be the idea that you are looking for.

  3. Well, the script's writer did not care for my assessment, or my advice. He responded by calling me three kinds of idiot who wouldn't know a good script if it bit him on the ass.... yadda.... yadda.... yadda....

    And that young scriptwriter's name was...


    (heh, now I half want Furious D to read my stuff so he can insult me - what an honor!)

  4. Nate--

    And it wasn't Charlie Kaufman. It was Aaron Sorkin. The one suggestion he did follow was to have everyone speaking really quickly while they go up and down hallways.

  5. I only differ with D because I think the scriptural tales are terrific sources for good plots. Orson Scot Card even got some crackerjack plots out of the Book of Mormon in several novels.

    The basic tale of King David, a formerly-heroic king who murders his rival to marry the girl of his lusts, is a strong one. It should be treated with respect of course.

  6. I didn't say that the Bible didn't have plots, just that it comes with baggage. People will judge Biblical entertainment as either disrespectful or judgmental, and tune out.

  7. I actually really wanted 'Kings' to succeed, once I figured out what they were actually doing.

    Unfortunately, D is right. That was never gonna happen, for the reasons he stated. Maybe if they'd done it on a cable channel, it could've done alright - those kind of shows seem to have a 'yes but bear with us' ability to keep people watching - but there was no way that would've worked on network television.