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All posts for the month March, 2015

You know the drill. Watch this, then we chat.

Okay. Here goes.

Finding it as you go

The beginning of this episode shifted somewhat between casting and production. Originally, it was Zoe who’d failed to notice that Jeff was in the room. And when Anna (who plays Zoe) and Aaron (who plays Jeff) read that at Anna’s audition (Aaron having been cast some time earlier), it was certainly funny… but as you may recall from two weeks ago, we had a running gag building in which Jeff was habitually unable (or unwilling, maybe?) to tell that Zoe was in the room. Or recall her name. Zoe not noticing that handsy womanizer Jeff Winnick wasn’t in the somewhat small writers’ room would be a) weird, and b) actively contradictory to the other bit, which had more legs.

(Yes, I shift between actor name and character name a lot. Yes, I know it’s potentially confusing. No, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop.)

So while it always pains me a little to cut a joke, I rewrote the opening of the episode to reflect this new status quo that several other episodes established. And hey, the new joke turned out possibly even better. Because as funny as Anna’s reaction was to Aaron sneaking up on her, that pan over to reveal she’s been in the room the whole phone call just killed me the first time through. Hopefully you agree.

There’s a lot of this. On network television, they’re producing episodes from August until April, and get a chance to react to audience expectation. Play to their strengths, work on their weaknesses… well, in theory. Lord knows the writers of Gotham haven’t done much to make Barbara Kean less of a train wreck, but Arrow certainly adapted. Other shows, like House of Cards or Game of Thrones, film their entire seasons in one go, then release afterwards. All 13 episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt come out in one burst, so if there’s oh, I don’t know, a controversy about how they handle their minority characters, there’s not much they can do about that until season two.

We’re in a similar situation (he said, desperately trying to avoid saying “We’re like Game of Thrones,” aka. the most egotistical thing he could say in this context), in that the entire series finished photography three months before our first episodes went live. We didn’t even shoot episode by episode… as I said earlier, anything involving all four writers in the Writers’ Room had to be shot during Super Fun Happy Good Times Week. So it’s not like we could shoot a couple of episodes, review the dailies, learn what we could do better and brush up the next episode before we rolled cameras.

It’s a learn-as-you-go process. You just hope the seams don’t show too much. This topic got away from me a little. Let’s move on.

Like, Share, Subscribe

I probably watch the most internet videos of any of the executive producers (he said, his tone implying this wasn’t so much a brag as a shameful confession). This means that I put the most thought into little things like the difference between YouTube, Vimeo (YouTube’s pretentious cousin), and DailyMotion (the cousin from a dysfunctional family that YouTube and Vimeo don’t like to talk about), or more relevantly, how to do a good “Like, Share, Subscribe” short (or, as we call them, LSS) to run under the credits. Vlog-style channels like Jenna Marbles will just sign off for the week by reminding you to subscribe to the channel; more production-intensive channels like Cracked Studios and College Humor (spelling it without the U kills me a little, but that’s how they spell it, so…) have to run actual credits, so they fill that time with a quick bit to encourage you to like and share and subscribe, those things that don’t seem important until you’re on the other side of the video, when they become everything.

Now there’s a couple of ways to go here, and my two examples use both interchangeably. You can do an LSS custom tailored to the video… examples include Cracked’s Rom.Com (season two, anyway) and After Hours, or at least half of College Humor’s Adam Ruins Everything videos… or you can shoot something quick and generic that you can slap on the end of basically any video. Cody from Cracked or Emily from College Humor pointing out the like, subscribe, or “Watch more videos” buttons. Effective, but I find something disengaging about Cody saying “Thanks for watching… whatever that was.” I’d rather the request to subscribe be accompanied by Daniel O’Brien explaining that Soren Bowie wrote “Everyone is eating pie” into the stage directions for no reason other than he wanted pie.

I sort of split the difference. On occasion, our LSS bits are tailored towards the specific episode… most notably Brent’s on episode two… but for the most part, I wrote LSS bits for all of the main characters, and we figured out the best episodes to pair with each one. For instance, an episode about the horrors of the comments section fits well with an LSS about Zoe being traumatized by the comments section (one of my two favourites).

Random facts!

I directed the section with Zoe and Jeff locked in the side room. Which, let me tell you, was a bit tricky. The side rooms aren’t very big: we needed room for Zoe, Jeff, lights, the camera, the sound equipment, plus me and Ian, and possibly Tawni, who was typically on slate, but might not have been there that day. So I was cramped into one corner, directing the shots while running sound, with no chair. I have had old-man-knees since I was 15. I would typically lose all feeling in my legs during the shot.

The poster you can see on the window (albeit backwards) is for a band we know called Thwomp. They do rock covers of video games. They’re pretty awesome. You can find their music right here if metal covers of Mega Man music appeal to you, and how could they not.

I needed something for Zoe to be listening to on her way into the building, to cover the fact she didn’t notice Jeff’s ranting, or, as it turned out when we actually staged and shot it, Becky waiting in ambush. Zoe seemed the exact type to enjoy Jonathan Coulton. Because she’s on the geeky side and has a heart and feelings, so of course she likes Jonathan Coulton.

The trick about punchlines

In the punchline of this week’s episode, Jeff asks if Zoe deals with this sort of thing on her blog. After saying “I’m a woman. On the internet,” she decides he’s had enough for one day, and says that, no, everyone who comments on her blog is totally respectful.

Wasn’t the original punchline.

Because I spend a lot of time online, and have these crazy thoughts that maybe every woman I’ve ever cared about or will ever meet shouldn’t have to deal with a misogynist culture or live under the constant threat of sexual violence from men, I am well aware about what Zoe would have to deal with on her blog.

Jeff gets mean comments that his film might not be very good. Zoe gets threatened with rape and death if she expresses an opinion about a comic book.

And this episode was written before the real-life horror movie that is GamerGate got started, and “doxxing” and “Swatting” entered the common lexicon.

So I considered having the punchline of the episode be a little different, acknowledging what I was sadly confident would be part of Zoe’s day-to-day life. But we decided that might be a little too dark. Dark’s all well and good in the set up, but if you’re working it into the punchline, you’d better be confident your audience is going to be okay with that. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia trains its audience to expect a dark punchline to a dark premise; we didn’t have that expectation. So I went the other way. I think it works better. Provides a nice end moment instead of something that would just get Jeff spun up again.

Which is not to say that we shy away from controversial jokes. As we’ll see next week, when we talk about the yelling fight Keith and I had in a pub about… well, I wouldn’t want to give it away.

Seriously, like, share, subscribe, and comment on the videos. YouTube pays attention to that stuff.

Okay. Who’s ready for their internet comedy series to get real?

Caught up? Let’s get started. Joining me this week are both of my co-execs, Keith Kollee and Ian Pond.

Letting Go

Ian: I always imagined that the super dramatic scene that is being rehearsed at the top of the episode is actually part of a laughably melodramatic sci fi play. Maybe about immortal cowboys.

As I’ve stated before, I started writing Phil Payton way on back in 1997. He’s been the main character, or at least amongst the main characters, in three plays of mine. I’ve used him as a vehicle to… exorcise some demons more than once.

So imagine, then, the trust involved in having the principle writer of Phil’s big solo episode be my co-exec Keith Kollee.

This isn’t the first episode Keith wrote. That’s coming in two to three weeks. And Keith’s first episode showed us that we’d achieved something important: we wrote the characters consistently. Super consistently. To the point that the cast–including Aaron, who’s been following my writing for years– couldn’t tell at first glance which episodes were mine and which were Keith’s.

That is an excellent thing to pull off. That Keith could write these characters as well as I could was a relief (part of why I dragged him into this was so that I wouldn’t have to write the whole damn thing  for his writing talents). That he could write them as the same people as I do was a blessing. Because there’s little worse than when a show is so inconsistently written that you can tell who wrote it by how the characters act.

Ahem.

Ahem.

Aside from, you know, opening with a tragic death, thus far we’ve kept things light and funny. As you’ve no doubt seen (and if you haven’t, what the hell, the video is right at the top, what is keeping you, here be spoilers!), Keith went a different way with this one. When we were plotting out the season, the rough summary we came up with was “Phil has a crush on an actress, but can’t ask her out because he can’t stop picturing all the ways it could go wrong.”

Me, I pictured a series of brief fantasy sequences in which Phil does indeed envision a dozen different tragic outcomes of asking out the actress who eventually became George, because as we discussed, I am goony for cutaways. Keith, not sharing my demented and annoying-to-film obsession, tried something different.

…You know what? Let’s let Keith himself take over for a bit. Ladies and gentlemen, Keith Kollee.

Keith’s take

Deconstructing Phil was not the first episode I wrote for season one, but it is the first to see air. That will ensure that it always has a special place in my heart. It is also the darkest and least funny episode. Why is that? Why did I feel like this was necessary? Despite Dan’s half-hearted protests, I know that Phil was based on him in the original iteration of Writers Circle. (I half heartedly protest! -Dan) What Dan doesn’t know is that once upon a time, Phil Payton was also me. I suffered the same insecurities and self-sabotage. Writing those awful things for Sydney to say (sorry Syd!) was easy because I had thought those same things about myself a thousand times. Because I could see so much of myself in Phil, I felt it was important that he not be some buffoon that we propped up and poked fun of. We will, of course, still laugh at Phil and his foibles, but we will also understand that he is a real person, and that his pain comes from a real (if ridiculous) place. I feel like this will actually make him funnier in the long run. Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. I just feel like all the great sitcoms over the years had these kinds of episodes (MASH is the one that immediately springs to mind), and the characters were always stronger after being forged in that fire. I hope the audience agrees.

Heart rips

This was also a special episode because it book-ended the shooting of the season for us. It was the episode we shot on the first day, and again on the last. I remember standing outside the theatre, looking at these two other people (Dan & Ian) that I had decided to embark on this journey with. It was not unusual for the three of us to sit around and talk about the awesome things we could do, under the right circumstances. But we made a plan, set one foot in front of the other, and were on the verge of creating something real. I had never been more proud of us. And I had also never been so scared. I had no idea what I was doing and I was sure that was evident to everyone. In hindsight, I still don’t think I’m wrong about that. But then we flash forward to the last day of shooting. We were all so much more comfortable with ourselves and each other. I still didn’t know what I was doing, but I had made my peace with that. And no one was impolite enough to call me on my bullshit. We had become a family. I remember feeling a profound sadness that last day. An emptiness. What was I going to do when I didn’t see these people everyday? It was soon filled with the flurry of post-production and other projects, but it was not forgotten. It fuels the fire for season two.

Ian: This episode was shot on two separate occasions MONTHS apart. Being that the first day was THE FIRST DAY of shooting, the day after first read through (and a party) when we were first trying to figure out how shoots would work, Keith ended up noticing that he wanted more wide shots. Add to this that at some point I accidentally deleted half the footage from the day. All this culmintated in scheduling a reshoot day some time in October. By this time the theatre we were shooting in, which was empty for the summer, now had a set built in it. Also by the time we were scheduling reshoots Ryan had grown a beard for another shoot and couldn’t shave down for our show until he was done with that. Heh. Good times.

Anytime someone says “See you next week” I think “See you next Tuesday”. I’m not proud of it. But I doubt I’m alone.

Getting Real

Thanks, guys. Now, to elaborate on some things Keith brought up…

This episode is brutal and unflinching in a way I’m not sure I would have delivered on, and I do have some experience chasing Phil up a tree and throwing rocks at him. And it’s important that it happened this early in the season (would have been earlier if someone hadn’t shoehorned in Origin Stories, but here we are).

Keith named MASH. I cite Scrubs. Which may seem like a less impressive reference but too late it’s happening. Scrubs started its run with broad, zany comedy, and while they toned down the foley a little after the pilot, that’s primarily where Scrubs lived. Then in episode four, they gave each of the three lead doctors a patient, announced they were going to kill one of them, got you invested in the patients and their stories… and then killed all three. In a montage set to a cover of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, just to make sure you were every bit as depressed as they wanted you to be.

Why? Same reason I’m glad Keith wrote this episode the way he did. As a warning shot that we’ve got this in our toolbox, and while we’re primarily a comedy show, we are not afraid to get heavy when that’s where the story goes. Last week was hilarious, next week will be too, but this week we pull a knife and go for the heart. Because we can.

Plus, you know, all the stuff Keith said. About Phil’s pain coming from a real and difficult place.

We could just phone it in, have a punchline for every setup, end on the laugh track, never grow and never challenge anyone…

AHEM.

AHEM.

But I’d rather be Scrubs. I’d rather be Community. I’d rather be Bojack Horseman. I’d rather be the show that makes you laugh but can still stab you right in heart, because you care so much about the characters that their pain becomes your pain, their triumphs all the sweeter because you’ve been rooting for them this whole time.

Fortunately, Keith agrees, and this episode is the result.

First Day on the Job

Like Keith said, this was the very first episode we ever shot. Our first day on set. One day after our table read, we set up in the Pumphouse Theatre and rolled camera for the first time.

Lights, camera, excitement!

Lights, camera, excitement!

That wasn’t a small thing for us. Keith, Ian, and I had been working on this for over a year. Thirteen months since the train in Switzerland where I told Ian this was what we were doing now and started writing what became episode twelve. Ten months since Keith, Ian, and I had a drink on my balcony and started breaking the season’s stories, defining the characters, divvying up episodes. And now we were filming. It was a good feeling. And having an entire episode in the can by the end of our first day? A great feeling. We wouldn’t get an entire episode done in one day again until the first day of Super Fun Happy Good Times Week, when we managed to shoot all of Stonebluff Road (episode 10, coming in April).

Not that having an episode in the can lasted. As it turns out, we were forced to reshoot chunks of this episode, hence it also being one of our last days on set (I’m honestly uncertain which was last, the reshoots for this episode or Becky’s flashback from episode three). Not ideal, but hey, there was symmetry.

Also reshoot day was the last time all five leads were in the same room, as that was the day Dave Moss of Abby + Dave Photography came by to take the character photos you can see on our website.

Astute viewers will recognize Matt “Coffee Shop Douche” Pickering in the lower left of that photo. This was Matt’s one day on set as AD/Production Manager, a role we talked him into through no small amount of charm on Keith’s part. Sadly, health issues forced him to step down from the position, but if you’ve been watching/reading carefully, you’ll find the signs that he’s still with us in spirit.

And sometimes with us in the flesh, getting tormented by Becky.

Such torment.

Such torment.

And he wasn’t the only casualty…

Ian: The thing about shooting a passion project is you tend to do it for free and have to get people to do things for free. As such it’s kind of a dick move to be angry when someone takes paying work over your thing. Such was the case of our short lived camera op Alexis Moar who started early in the project shooting auditions, test shoots and up to the first full day of photography but then went back to working in television and film once they started calling again. I’ve worked with her plenty in the corporate AV world and seen many of the things she has worked on. If you get a chance to work with her, take it but for gods’ sakes pay her or you run the risk of losing her to someone who can. 

My favourite moment from day one? That is, aside from our talented and adorable costumer/slate girl trying to keep up with some of the trickier shots?

And we didn't even use that one.

And we didn’t even use that one.

While filming, Keith paused, turned to me (or someone, I forget, I mean I replied but people tend to forget I’m in a room so he could have been talking to anyone) and said “We haven’t had any good bloopers yet.”

That’s right, his big complaint from day one on set was that things were going too well. But I was right there with the reassurance.

“Don’t worry, Keith,” I said. “Once Aaron and Steph are on set, that’ll change.”

Rumour has it a blooper reel is heading our way which should prove I was right.

Ian: This episode was a nightmare for me and Pat. (“Pat” being Patrick “DJ PEENS” Murray -DG) The two shooting days with different equipment made post production incredibly difficult. Matching colour was a huge problem as on the original day we used some of the theatre’s existing house plot for much of our lighting. By the time we shot a company had moved in for a show and hung and focused their own light plot. And then there’s the matter that Pat needed the sound equipment we’d been using for another shoot that day so we were forced to use my far lesser equipment. What followed was some of the most hurtful and mean spirited criticisms I’d ever read in Keith’s post production directorial notes. We could but try. He’s a monster.

This also marked the last day I used a soft box for lighting. I had one bulb for that thing and when it broke had no money to replace it.

On a personal note, this was Nathan Iles’ one day on set as Ian (the actor), which turned out to be just excellently timed. See, partway through the shoot, I lost a cast member from the production of Frost/Nixon I was directing. As I was exchanging messages with my stage manager about it, I looked up and said “Hey Nate, wanna be in Frost/Nixon?”

“Sure!” he replied. “I was wanting to find a show to do.”

“Awesome,” I said. “But… remember how you were excited to get your hair cut?”

“Yeah…”

“Not so much.”

Next week we’re going to talk about internet trolls. So the episode will be funny, but the commentary might get dark. Circle of life, man. Circle of life.

Okay. You’ve had your inspiration. You’ve written your first draft. You’ve sucked it up and let people read it. Now let’s take it to the next level… reading it out loud.

Sounded better in your head

There are things you can’t know about your script until you hear it out loud. Sentences that seem hilarious on paper can fall flat when you actually have to read them out. Dialogue that seems fine in your head can be awful coming out of someone’s mou–there has to be a better phrasing… can sound awful spoken out loud.

Why yes, I do have examples.

One of my favourite webcomics is Something Positive. Like most webcomics I follow, it has a strong wit and a unique voice in its dialogue. What I didn’t know is that it wouldn’t really translate from the page. And then some fans did a short film based on one of the earlier stories, and some of my favourite lines from the story… fell flat. Now you could say that it’s because the film was shot by amateur fans and not Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but honestly, spoken out loud, the lines got clunky. Super clunky. Because they move a lot faster when you’re reading them in your head than actually speaking them.

Which is something to look out for when you have my unfortunate tendency to think wit can be accomplished with excessive verbosity. Um… “bein’ all wordy.”

The second example comes from something I did, instead of a well-meaning fan film that came out a little clunky.

It was one of the earliest drafts of Salvage. I handed it to two close friends for a review, got notes, came back with a second draft, and was chided for not cutting a section of dialogue that one of my readers had advised me to be rid of. I attempted to defend the section, at which point my friend decided to prove his point in the swiftest way possible: reading the lines aloud. My reactions were as followed:

“I don’t think it’s so– Well, if you read it like that, it– maybe it needs to– STOP IT! STOP IT!”

Took, maybe, 15 seconds to be utterly broken by my own dialogue. Needless to say, it got rewritten pretty thoroughly.

The Reading

So gather your friends, hand out scripts, read it out loud. It’s hard to predict how you’ll react or what’s going to happen. Me? Frequently, my nose runs. No idea why. It’s like the emotions triggered by people enjoying something I wrote set off leaks in all of my face-holes. Kind of annoying, not gonna lie.

When they laugh, how it sounds, it’s all hard to predict. Personally, I swap between trying to savour hearing the words out loud and following along in the script so that I can catch the more obvious flaws. And then… down to business.

Once the script is read, you need people’s reactions.

It’s, at best, organized chaos. You have a room full of people (depending on how many people you invited) that hopefully will all want to sound off on what they thought, and keeping it all orderly can be a challenge.

Now, in my case, I had a fiction writing class back in University with novelist Aritha Van Herk. Aritha is a nice person and an impeccable teacher, but part of her technique is that she is merciless. Aritha Van Herk will tear you down to rubble and rebuild you, stronger and better than you were. And the way this happens is that everyone reads each other’s stories, then in class everyone tears into the story to discuss what’s wrong with it. And maybe, if you’re in the second or third year, what’s right with it, but the focus is on the former. And the writer just sits there and takes notes. Because it’s not like you can find everyone who reads your book and explain what you meant to say.

Clem Martini, my playwriting prof, believed more in positive enforcement. He’d still spend the bulk of the time on how a script needed to improve, but would open by discussing what worked.

But back to Aritha. The most valuable thing I got from two years of fiction writing class was a thick skin. By the time I started playwriting class with Clem, I wasn’t afraid to have people read my stuff and tell me what they thought. In fact, I was starting to thrive on it. However, the flip side is that I also sort of got into the habit of being a passive observer in the commentary portion, which some people find baffling.

Results

Steer into the chaos. Mine your readers for everything you can; which characters work, which don’t. If it’s a comedy, do the jokes land? If it’s a mystery, how obvious is the ending? Do people care about the story? Get everything you can, because there is going to be a lot. Unless your draft is miraculously rock-solid this early in the process (I have managed that precisely twice, similar to the number of plays I buried never to see the light of day), there will be a lot of stuff to work on. More people means more opinions and more flaws you never saw and strengths to play up.

The most recent example. My last workshop, for the farce I’ve been working on, went exceptionally well. It got the laughs it needed (if a farce isn’t funny, that’s the ball game), the main characters all worked, it was a hit. People enjoyed it, some wanted to direct it, some might even consider staging it, but there was still an ass-ton of rewrites necessary. One character had to be cut, and a full third of the cast had to be completely rewritten. Only two characters escaped without needing tweaking. Fortunately, my two favourites, so go me on that one.

Workshopping isn’t an easy process. You need a strong stomach, a thick skin, and a tough… neck, or whatever? Ran out of body part analogies. But the insights you gain on how your script is doing are invaluable.

And if you can get past the “What if nobody likes it” fear, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. Me, I can’t wait to finish this draft so I can think about doing another.

Guess I’d better get back to that.

See you all Friday for Writers’ Circle: Confidential, when we’ll be talking about handing one of my oldest characters over to another writer.

You know the drill. Here’s the episode…

…now let’s get to it.

Hark now to the tale of how I, as head writer, made everything complicated for the production team forever and always.

“Forever and always” in this case being defined as for a few more weeks, but still.

So the episodes did not get written in anything even approximating production or airing order. One of our first priorities when we kicked off the project was to plan out the entire season, figure out what stories we needed, what stories we wanted, try to give all the characters decent coverage, plot a couple of long-term arcs. We then divvied up the writing between me and Keith, with my plan being to write the season finale last so that it could properly pay off everything we’d done.

And then having done all of that, I suddenly decided “Wouldn’t it be neat if we did an episode about how everyone became writers in the first place?” And despite the fact that we had a full season, decided to just go ahead and write it anyway, because I’m the head writer and give zero fucks, apparently.

Fortunately, it turned out pretty funny, and a planned two-parter read way faster than we expected, so it all worked out. It just… it created a little problem.

See, by then, every other script was written. Written and numbered, from one to thirteen. And since renumbering 10 shared files felt like a lot of work, I just went ahead and numbered Origin Stories episode 3.5.

So it’s episode four to the audience, and 3.5 to the production team. Which, you know, is just a bundle of laughs when the production team is chatting.

Fortunately, we’ve worked out a good solution all around. We just keep referring to episodes by their script number (which will soon enough bring us to episode 6/7), and since I handle the YouTube copy and the social media posts, only I have to worry about their broadcast numbers.

Which, you know, is basically just counting.

Episode observations

I don’t have too many set memories on this episode. It fell during one of the days in Super Fun Happy Good Times Week when I had rehearsal for Frost/Nixon, so it was 10:00 by the time I was on set. But there are a few random notes and Easter eggs I can share.

There are those who imply that Phil, the playwright, might have some passing resemblance to Dan, the me. This is, of course, nonsense and slander, and officially I have no knowledge how this rumour got started. But those who spread it tend to point at the supposed fact that I gave Phil three of my old jobs.

Which is, of course, madness. Sure, okay, regular readers or those willing to troll the archive will know all about my brief time at Canada Post and some snippets of my time as a projectionist, but I only trained as a blackjack dealer. Never actually worked as one. So there.

Goth Phil

Goth Phil judges you and your assumptions.

Moving along… due to the wonders of the filming process, Phil and Becky’s halves of their phone call were actually shot around two months apart. July was our “no Stephanie/Becky month,” meaning no Becky scenes, which was tricky, because there’s only one episode in the whole season that Becky’s not in. So in July, we knocked off just as many non-Becky moments as we could, including Phil’s side of the phone call.

Although it occurred to us in the moment that it would have been better to have both of them in the room… could have opened up some neat split-screen opportunities… but we’ll just call that a lesson for next season.

Now, while the halves of the phone call are separated by time, they were actually shot only 20ish feet apart. See, we didn’t have a lot of budget for locations… or anything… so with the exception of the writers’ room, we mostly hunted down what we could get for free. Like, say, my house. Which quite fortunately has two very distinct floors. Phil lives in my basement, and Becky on my main floor, although we mostly only see the kitchen. And yes, that’s my pimp chalice she’s drinking out of.

Speaking of my stuff… it was really simple turning my basement into Phil’s nerdy living room. It is probably not surprising that I own a fair amount of nerd paraphernalia. It was simply a matter of scouring the upper floor for Dr. Who merch, webcomic geek art, and the statue collection I call my nerd reliquary.

I'm comfortable with who I am.

I’m comfortable with who I am.

Most of which you can’t even see. We’d even gotten permission from Joel Watson of Hijinks Ensue to use his “Doctor is In” print, in exchange for reminding people that you can totally buy your own at his store, and it didn’t even make it into the shot. Redecorated the entire basement for nothing. Except that the table totally works better there.

Blast from the past

Shifting to the flashback to movie night at casa del Winnick… we needed audio for whatever awful movie spurred Jeff to launch his moviemaking career. But even if there was a movie we could think of that no sane mind would ever consider to be less than fully terrible…

Ahem.

Ahem.

… if it wasn’t something we owned, we couldn’t use it. So as a placeholder, our sound engineer, Patrick “DJ Peens” Murray, used the dialogue between Zoe and Tina from the start of episode three, because it amused him to have Jeff complaining about how bad the dialogue was in something I wrote. And it’s not that the rest of the team didn’t see his point, just that if we used dialogue from last week’s episode, we thought people might notice.

So we found another way, a way that makes this scene even more self-referential.

Jeff, Becky, and Phil of Writers’ Circle: the Series are watching the DVD of Writers’ Circle: the Play.

In a perfect world, we would have used one of Jeff’s scenes, so that Jeff was complaining about having to watch the Jeff Winnick Story, but I got Peens the DVD late and didn’t have time to find a good scene. So we just grabbed scene two (which I thought was a Jeff Winnick scene, having forgotten we cut that one for time), aka. the first scene not reproduced nearly word for word in our first episode.

Insignificant tribute

The… well-fed missionaries that Becky chases off in her flashbacks are, as the credits reveal, myself and Keith, with Ian completing the “executive producer cameo” set elsewhere in her flashback. We are not holding bibles or books of Mormon, as I don’t really have either, but are instead each holding one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Some of the only and easiest to find hardcover books I own.

Because man I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

It began as a simple fantasy parody novel, but grew into something much, much more. The Discworld is a fully-realised fantasy world that acts as a mirror of our own through twisting and subverting storytelling tropes. It’s filled with incredible, lovable characters I could never wait to read more about: angry detective Samuel Vimes and the rest of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch; conman turned unwilling civil servant Moist Von Lipwig; Granny Weatherwax and the Witches of Lancre; the bumbling wizards of Unseen University; Death and his adopted family. Forty novels, each designed to delight new and old readers alike. Terry Pratchett was a uniquely gifted writer, comedian, satirist, storyteller, and world builder. Since I first read Good Omens twenty-ish years ago, an end-of-the-world tale he wrote with Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett’s books have been an endless source of joy for me.

He died yesterday at the age of 66. Early-onset Alzheimer’s. The world… my world… is lessened by his absence.

Next week… Phil goes solo in Deconstructing Phil. Be well, everybody.

And welcome to another instalment of Writers’ Circle Confidential, your ticket behind the curtain of your new favourite webseries. You heard me. It is your new favourite now. Unless you just discovered Cracked: After Hours or something.

Just me this week. My cast are thus far shy about sharing their recollections with my tens, nay, elevenses of readers. Seen the latest episode yet? Well, what’s keeping you?

A lot to talk about this week, so let’s get to it. Allons-y!

Meet Zoe

As I said last week, a good way to hook your audience into your premise is through a new arrival. A character who is as unfamiliar to the setting as the audience, thus allowing us to discover the characters and status quo through their eyes. WKRP had Andy Travis, Cheers had Diane Chambers, Brooklyn 99 had Captain Holt, and we have Zoe, brought to ridiculously adorable life by Anna Barker.

It was a bit of a trick adding a new character to what was, for me, an old and familiar dynamic. I wrote three hours of play script based around Phil, Jeff, and Becky bantering with occasional interjections from Tina. Figuring out a fourth person and making her fit in was a challenge. We decided we wanted a geek girl, especially since she was going to be our blogger (that being a field of writing not already represented by playwright Phil, novelist Becky, and screenwriter Jeff), but Phil has his nerdy side as well*, and we didn’t want Zoe to just be “Girl Phil.” That’s not an interesting dynamic to add, and would be shortchanging our second female lead.

So Zoe gets to be the awkward one. The one who doesn’t quite know how to make herself part of a group. Phil is held back by depression and self-doubt, but Zoe is just adorably clueless at socializing. Well, hopefully adorably.

Keith's notes on next week's episode show we're pretty confident.

Keith’s notes on next week’s episode show we’re pretty confident.

And thus, as Tina briefs Zoe on the group, we get our new introduction to the characters. A bit more thorough as to who they are, a bit more fun as Tina imagines them at… not their best. And results in a delightfully hilarious banshee-wail from Matt Pickering as the Coffee Shop Douche.

Some of us have started using it as a ring tone.

*Phil’s nerdy side is evidenced by the fact that when Phil and Becky enter the writers’ room, he is trying to explain why, in man of Steel, Krypton’s atmosphere has the same basic effect on Superman as Kryptonite.

Cutaways

Now, the method with which we re-introduce the main trio at the top of the episode brings us to a point of controversy amongst the Writers’ Circle Brain Trust (aka. myself, Ian, and Keith).

There’s an easy shorthand to figure out who wrote each script. If it’s just two (maybe three) people in one location, odds favour Keith being the primary writer. If it’s filled with cutaways (or has Tina in it), you know it’s one of mine.

I love cutaways. Ian, our director of photography, hates them. And me for writing them, which I will quite unapologetically continue to do whenever it suits me. See, I’ve been working in theatre for 20 years now, and that means dealing with the limitations of stage. There are simply things that can’t be done, or at least not done well, on stage. One of those is little comic asides like the ones you see in the stairwell sequence. Lord knows I’ve tried to work some conventions that are meant for the screen into stage plays, with what could charitably be called moderate success. Now that I’m writing for the screen, I see no reason to write things that could easily exist on stage. So I cut away. I include flashbacks. We see both sides of a phone call. And I’m loving it.

(Also watch that scream from the Coffee Shop Douche again and tell me it isn’t worth it.)

This, however, lead to an interesting complication. The cutaways are basically never shot on the same day as the rest of the episode. Since we don’t shoot episode-by-episode, we just figure out when and where we can do each shot, and fit them all in.

As a result, episode three basically encompasses the entirety of our shooting period. Phil’s flashback in the stairwell was shot in June, on our very first shooting day, the day after our first table read. Becky’s flashback was shot months later, in November. Look at that shot carefully. Most of this was shot in summer (as will become clear next week in further cutaways), but it is winter out there. The first half of the episode was shot on a completely different day than anything in the Writers’ Room, which was shot in a… very special time period. Let’s talk about that now.

Clearly, the staircase scene was tiring enough to shoot on its own.

Clearly, the staircase scene was tiring enough to shoot on its own.

Hell Super Fun Happy Good Times Week

Like I said, most of this was shot in summer. Which meant one dreadful thing: working around people’s vacations.

Well, I don’t know what we expected. We made the shooting schedule in June, of course people already had vacations booked, I already had a vacation booked and it was a last-minute travel deal. But still, this proved more challenging than we’d guessed.

We gathered up everyone’s availabilities, from the leads to the recurring characters to the one-off guest appearances, and having done that, discovered something horrifying.

There was only one window when all four of our leads (not counting Tina, who is credited as a lead, but has the least screen time) were available at the same time: a five day stretch in early August. This meant that every single scene where Phil, Becky, Jeff, and Zoe are all in the writers’ room (and some that only had three of them) had to be done in this one five-day period. And on four of those days, we’d only have four or five hours of shooting time, since people had day jobs.

We swiftly branded it Hell Week. And then I swiftly re-branded it Super Fun Happy Good Times Week, so as not to get people into more of a negative frame of mind than we needed to. Also because I loved shoot days and really wanted that to be infectious.

One 13 hour day on the Sunday, then whatever we could get done between 7:00 and 11:00 Monday to Thursday nights, typically followed by production chat with Daisy. And beers. Keith and I usually wanted beers by then.

(Once he wanted me to stick around for a beer specifically so that he could blame me personally for the title “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”)

The minor miracle? We got it done in four days. We had five, but we did it in four. Our cast are that good.

Now, that’s not to say everything worked that smoothly. A lot more scenes got pushed into September than we wanted. Our October launch date got pushed back to January (not wanting to compete with Christmas) as we were approaching our planned launch date and still hadn’t finished principle photography. As you may have guessed from me mentioning that scene we shot in November.

But still… getting through all the Writers’ Room scenes with the four leads took a chunk out of our to-do list, and let me saunter off to direct Scorpio’s production of Frost/Nixon with a clear conscience. Although not being on set for shoot days made me sad every time.

Next week! “Introducing the characters” enters week four in Origin Stories. Watch the episode on Thursday, then join me here on Friday.