Things I Learnt This Weekend: TV Writers’ Studio – Melbourne

Although not technically ‘this’ weekend, on the 23rd – 24th of February, I was lucky enough to attend Epiphany Artists’ TV Writers’ Studio. This took place in Melbourne and in Sydney and I headed off to the Melbourne one as Sydney is a little too far for me to commute. The wonderous gang at Epiphany Artists had pulled together some of the top consultants and writers in LA and dragged them Down Under to chat to a bunch of us Aussie writers – and it was an impressive bunch of people. Jen Grisanti, Steve Kaplan, Carole Kirschner, Ellen Sandler and Glen Mazzara all made the trek down to help inspire a bunch of writers to push themselves to find the best in their writing.

It was a crazy and intense weekend. The good kind of crazy and intense. It was split pretty evenly between a comedy strand and a drama strand, big chunks of the day dedicated to each. This was a great way to do it, I think, as then you could either be really selective about what you wanted to see and slip out during the sessions that didn’t attract you as much or go eagerly to all of them and make thousands of notes, like I did. There was also a third day which was set up to be like a mini writers’ room – again, split into drama and comedy – but I had to get back to work so unfortunately couldn’t go.

It was really fascinating to hear how the system works in LA. The structure of television – particularly in comedy – is so different from what I’m used to playing with in a more British or Australian model. But what I think I learnt the most is that there are so many different ways to approach writing something, so you have to feel really strong in the core elements of your story so that when different writers throw their own style of story at it, the core elements still shine through.

Another really interesting point that it threw up for me, was to really define for yourself as a writer the different core elements you’re working with. To take yourself through your idea and your story step by step to find out the functions of different characters and flagging to yourself something that you may have known subconsciously but bringing it to the forefront of your mind so you can work with it consciously. That was an incredibly useful tool for me to push myself to lock things in. I think that it’s easy as a writer to leave things up in the air and not define things, because sometimes when you define something it feels as though it can never be changed ever again.

But with definitions come creative limitations. And often it’s these limitations that make it a more creative place for you to work. If someone told you to write a short film script about anything you wanted, you’d find it hard to know where to start. But if someone told you to write a short script about absolutely anything, but set in the desert, that’s a creative limitation that allows your mind to work toward something.

By saying to yourself ‘My lead character is a 29 year old woman, who lives and works in a petrol station in the South Australian outback who wants to be free of her life and pursue her dream of becoming a singer, but is stuck there by her over-bearing, small town mother who can’t let go of her daughter and her best friend who is unhappily married and the only mechanic in town,’ you suddenly have a whole lot more possibilities to work with in every episode, story and arc you write than a blank page.

She’s 29 and feels like she’s achieved nothing with her life. Minefield of ideas for how she could try to seize the day. She wants to be a singer – very visual and occasionally musical. Can she actually sing? What if she’s awful? Maybe that’s a running joke – we never hear her sing so are never sure how good she is. The relationship between mother and daughter also holds endless possibilities for stories. Likewise, a potential romance in the best friend AND anyone else who comes through the servo on their way to/from the outback.

Creative limitation.

Define genre, character, protagonist, style and tone, locations and arena of the story, what your protagonist (or central character) wants – what gets them out of bed in the morning? What are they passionate about? Who is your target audience? This last one will usually define your character’s ages and personality. Not always – there are exceptions to every rule.

Mostly though, the weekend was a great way to think differently about my projects. It forced me to look at things from another perspective and I think that always really benefits you as a writer/filmmaker and your project. Even if it’s a completely different opinion to yours – you need to figure out how people made that leap to that space and work out how to guide them better to where you want them. It’s hard work to do, but incredibly beneficial.

Have a go at it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to use it. That’s the beauty of writing – if something doesn’t work, throw it out. But it’s worth having a go to see what it might throw up.

Kill Your Babies

The phrase ‘kill your babies’ is one that often gets thrown around in writing and filmmaking. It basically means that you shouldn’t get too attached to your ideas because every once in awhile, you’ll have the best idea you’ve ever had in your life – your career, even – and you’ll want to keep it. But it doesn’t work for the story. And so, you’ll need to let it go, even though you’ll never come up with an idea that’s better.

That’s the theory anyway. Some people take it in different ways – some people say that once you’ve finished the first draft of your script your should go back and cut your best scene out entirely. Or cut your best idea. Your best line of dialogue. I never really understood that way of thinking – surely you would keep developing your ideas so that they matched your very best one, not cut your best one to match the calibre of the rest? But everyone writes differently, so if that’s what works for you as a writer, then knock yourself out.

I’m working on a sitcom at the moment with my partner in crime, Anton. We’re developing the plotline of the episode that we’ll end up writing as our pilot. We spent weeks putting all the storylines into context of the first series, making sure all the characters had arcs and often throwing old ideas out because we’d discover something even better that was borne out of story and character in the context of the episode instead of spontaneous inspiration. We’d slaved over this one particular episode and had some really strong ideas for it, we knew what needed to happen but it wasn’t coming together. There was something that wasn’t flowing naturally and neither of us wanted to try to force the episode into a shape it wasn’t going to fit into.

So we took a breather to try and figure it out and I suggested throwing everything out and figuring out what the function of the episode needed to be at its very core. Not surprisingly, Anton was slightly skeptical of doing that, considering how hard we’d been working on it. I probably would’ve reacted the same way if he’d suggested it to me. But, as I explained to him, we were just going to use it as an exercise to see if we could find what wasn’t working. It didn’t mean that we were binning everything to never look at it again. It was just about getting back to the core of the episode to see what we were trying to do and if there were better ways of doing it than what we were working with.

We did that. We got it back to the core function of story and character. We straightened out the kinks in the skeleton, laid all the groundwork properly, then went back and talked about the best possible way to hit all the beats and make the characters do exactly what they needed to do for the episode. And we came up with some amazing new ideas  out of that (some of which have been overtaken already by others).

But we also realised that the main idea we were working with for the episode still worked. Really really well. We weren’t so stubborn that we’d ‘killed’ it, then refused to bring it back into the story because it was too much of a good idea. What was the point of that if the idea was still working? We brought it back in, surrounded by other, newer ideas which were stronger and better (and funnier) and the whole episode sprung into new life.

That’s why I don’t really agree with the term ‘kill your babies’. In my eyes, it’s kind of like shooting yourself in the foot. If it’s not working with the rest of the story, then yes, you should probably put it aside and save it for something else. But if it still can play a strong enough role in terms of story and character in your script, I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to revive that baby and bring it back to life.

So maybe the phrase should be ‘Knock Your Babies Out With A Sedative Until You Can Figure Out If They’re Working Or Not’?

Too long? Yeah, I think so too. I’ll work on it.