A year ago, while toiling as a temp for a large American manufacturer, I wrote a one-hour television spec pilot, and later, I wrote another one. In the midst, I finished writing a feature for a small Northeastern production outfit, based on a loose concept they had envisioned as their next movie project, which was very well-received. Great, we signed a deal memo and I carried on struggling to make a living, hoping one day our deal would bear fruit for us all.
Around about June, I started to have daydreamy moments in which I’d picture them wanting to produce some scripted television. Guess what? By late June, they emailed me about exactly that question, asking if I also wrote for television. I sent them my two pilot scripts, and they asked if I would like to write another one for them to pitch to networks this Fall? Of course, I would!
On our ensuing conference call, they referenced a documentary on UFO contactees and abductions, told me they were acquainted with its producer, and wanted to involve him as a consultant, giving him input into the story. They proposed a package deal in which, if the pitch were successful, the four of us would share equally in the proceeds, all credited as “creators” or “co-creators” and with me as the writer, because they believed in my ability, based on my work they had seen.
I was aware, of course, that in practical terms, that meant that the couple who held the production company shingle were to get half the money, should money ultimately flow, and, as the writer, I was tasked to do a large majority of the actual work. That would have been a foolish point to stick on. My objective is to help these people become more successful, and, in so doing, gain influence and prospects as a writer. I already know, with this proposal, what I have gained from the experience so far: champions, people who work in the industry, who stand ready to promote my work as a writer to network executives. As a writer attempting to promote myself, I could easily be seen by these busy people as a self-deluded fool swimming in a swarming pool of pestilent life. With a champion, I conceivably become a writer who might be worth carving out an hour to take a look.
A six-week process ensued. I watched the documentary. I met its producer on a subsequent four-way conference call. On a mistaken assumption, I lost several days analyzing his proposal for a series and submitted a slightly revamped version, with suggestions I believed would increase its chances for achieving a sale. I was corrected; this was not actually under consideration for our project. I developed another series proposal for utilizing a similar set of elements, using a different approach. We were mandated, the documentary producer and I, to discuss developing the series based on that approach, which used a Special Forces type reluctantly forced into becoming a UFO investigator. We held two Skype sessions covering a total of about three hours, before receiving another mandate, a new slant on the subject which I felt meant we had to scrap our work up until then and start the series from a more “workaday world” ground level, what I called “switching from Yang to Yin” with the approach.
I came up with the idea to use an insurance claims adjuster as the lead. He was to lose his job by the end of the pilot, and, as result of his experiences, was to embark on a public career as an occult investigator, in a way that made him an instant charlatan to most, and a hero to a minority out there with some strange stories to tell, seeking only someone to believe them. I chose this occupation for two main reasons: it was professionally oriented toward inquiry, even investigation, while being “ordinary,” normally a routine job, so it should be somewhat both pertinent to the show’s direction, and also relatable. Secondly, using a routine job for the main character’s occupation meant we could avoid using the usual TV trope characters who investigate, such as cops, detectives, private eyes, or, perhaps the least-overused for main characters, media reporters. I proposed a half-finished plot line in which the main character launched into an investigation of a death by spontaneous combustion, in which he was tasked to invalidate a life insurance policy because it was death by suicide.
A third scheduled Skype session with the documentary maker followed, in which the usual pattern was followed. Basically, he questioned every choice I made. Our dialogue was not antagonistic in the “contrary” sense, it was a debate aimed at probing and discovering whether there were better choices to be made. I’m not very much used to collaborating, but I was able to effectively support my choice of occupation for the main character, and we agreed on that point without the debate on it going overlong. However, my plot collaborator did not like the idea of “spontaneous combustion” as an inciting incident. He felt it was too well-known to be a real phenomenon. I was not so sure about that, but asked what he would like to try instead. He proposed involving a grand master of a secret society, having a family member, perhaps a child, being menaced, or already killed.
This point was indicative of the shape of our collaboration. He would generally propose far-out suggestions, I would generally reel him back in. On this one, I really didn’t have to. He realized, himself, that would be too grisly.
I didn’t have an immediate take on the effectiveness of using a grand master, other than it placed us in the way of some “secrets,” but after only a few moments of discussing the exact nature of the threat, inspiration struck and I began to assert that the grand master himself needed to be menaced, and — here was the hook — he marched into the insurance company office in the opening minutes and announced he was going to be murdered and wanted to take steps to insure his life insurance policy would not be voided by counter-claims that he was a suicide, involved in illegalities, or what-have-you. Nice! It brought us a “ticking clock” element, too! This was definitely far better than my first idea, because it gave us someone live, not just a surviving spouse, that sort of thing, to involve our lead with, but someone directly involved in “the mysteries” at which we were aiming our series idea. We held another session and talked about other ideas I’d put forth, and generally supposed a few things about the shape of the second half. But that session was irresolute and vague, not yielding any “gold,” as the previous session had. By this time, we were also down to just over a week before the deadline for digital submission for materials to the pitch session. I needed to get writing, fast!
Suddenly, I had another problem, one which I worried might derail the project now that we were down to the wire. We received another game-changing email from the producers who had packaged our group deal. One of them had decided to be adamantly opposed to the idea that the main character was an insurance claims adjuster. We had a new suggestion to make the profession “more action-oriented, like an EMT.” This seemed, as I inquired into the question, to be due to personal impressions formed during encounters with actual insurance adjusters. They were too damn boring, evidently. I laid out my tactical case for thinking it would work, and why I felt an EMT would not, in a reply email, and my plot collaborator, bless him, weighed in, in favor of using a claims adjuster, as well. However, I was willing to get it hashed out and make such a change, as long as we could do it quickly and logically, coming up with something better than EMT. But, as “investigation” remained essential to the discoveries inherent in the concept, I felt stuck for something better than the usual TV trope character types I mentioned earlier. Fortunately, once again, I was able, in another conference call, to carry the day, conditioned, as one of the pair gently suggested, on making it clear this particular insurance claims adjuster was a “fish out of water” in his everyday milieu. Perfect! I mulled things over and made notes the next day, a Sunday, trying to get my head in order for the task.
I wrote the script from early Monday morning until late Thursday afternoon. At this point, being jobless was a blessing. My old personal best had been nine days to do something comparable, but I did that over two weekends sandwiching a work week in a regular, non-creative job. Still, this was a process of working to a not-fully-developed plan, while making decisions and discoveries in the process. As late as Tuesday evening, having reached the midpoint, I felt hopeless, to the point of despair, that I would ever get the elements we had discussed to mesh properly, to really work.
But, that’s part of the excitement, folks. On day three, I made certain decisions about how I was going to handle the rest, decisions which carried certain risks, but, I decided, were going to bear delicious fruits if I carried through with them. On day four, I wrote on a continuous natural high, which only became stronger as I progressed to the end. One more added scene and three spots of tweaking were all it needed from there, easily done with the three remaining days I had left until deadline.
During my Skype sessions with my co-plotter, I had gathered an impression that his thinking was very “plot” oriented, this happens, then that happens, and something else happens, if only because it might seem “cooler,” I supposed. I have trained myself over the years as a writer to put my head inside the space of each character. As an example, would I, as a stringer reporter, rent a boat to get out to an exclusive enclave and try to gain a spying position for a possible story, being stuck outside the house of my target when I arrived, or would I try to finagle a ride, by hook or crook, with someone I knew had business on the island, and try to ride his coattails right inside the home? We had a few friendly arguments over things like that. Luckily, my explanations of the choices I had made generally carried the point with the producers who had brought us together, as they refereed those disagreements, though I was okay with doing some tweaks to accommodate the points of my other collaborator at times.
The end result was that everyone accepted the script and the couple who packaged the deal expressed what I must call no less than ecstasy with what I had ultimately written. Their reaction to my efforts brought more than relief, to be sure. Though I had believed I had written an outstanding script, it’s not hard for a writer making a huge effort to develop that impression of his own efforts. I have validation through their responses, and in the process, I gained even more determined champions of my work.
They’ll be pitching it and my other two projects, those other spec pilot scripts I gave them, under separate agreements, at the New York Television and Film festival (NYTVF) in October.