The Odyssey odyssey, part 26

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.

The Odyssey odyssey part 26, told by Paul VitolsAt the risk of sounding whiny, writing a good script is hard. If you have any trouble believing this, I can only suggest that you try it. I speak from experience–not only my own as a writer, but also, during 1991, as a paid reader of scripts for CBC Drama in Vancouver.

The good scripts I saw there were notable for their rarity. As I recall, there were only three, maybe four, scripts that actually aroused my enthusiasm and generated a positive report from me. Two of those wound up being produced–one by the CBC as a made-for-TV movie, the other as an independent feature film. This tends to confirm Robert McKee’s contention that good scripts do indeed get produced. He thinks it’s a myth that there are all kinds of great scripts out there, lying in drawers, gathering dust because Hollywood and the film business are too schlocky to produce them. Truly good scripts do get produced–eventually.

One of my favorite stories in this vein is of the script for An Officer and a Gentleman, written by Douglas Day Stewart probably in the late 1970s, and, in my opinion, one of the best movies of the 1980s. Stewart had written other scripts for hire, such as The Blue Lagoon, but this script was done on “spec”–speculation, an industry term for a script that is the writer’s own idea, written for love and not for pay. The idea is that you write the script, then sell it and get paid.

Stewart himself was an alumnus of the aviators’ school in Puget Sound, Washington; it was a world he knew intimately. The phenomenon of local blue-collar girls’ trying to catch Air Force officer-husbands in the 12 weeks of the training program was real. He created the character of Zack Mayo, the cocky, lone-wolf martial artist who signs up in search of somewhere he can belong, and by the time he was done he knew he had a winner. He’d written a great script, and he knew it.

He thought, “If I can’t sell this script I might as well give up, because nothing makes any sense.”

He started peddling the script, but couldn’t get anyone to bite. Why? It was the late 1970s, and no one wanted to do another “war” movie. The decade had seen the production of movies like Coming HomeThe Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now, and, although everyone thought the script itself was good, all the studios were “warred out”.

Stewart was frustrated, because as far as he was concerned, it wasn’t a “war” movie–it was a love story that happened to be set at an Air Force training academy. There was no combat; the action never left Puget Sound.

He kept shopping the script. Eventually somebody bit: it was Lorimar, producers of the hit TV series Dallas. They hadn’t made a feature film before, but they were jacked on the script and thought it could be a winner. Lorimar bought the script and set about making the movie. It went on to be one of the biggest hits of 1982.

As a writer, one of my favorite parts of the Officer and a Gentleman story was how the filmmakers had decided not to bother shooting Stewart’s final scene, which was when Richard Gere, in his officer whites, strides into the pulp mill where Debra Winger works and carries her out while her coworkers cheer. Apparently Taylor Hackford, the director, and others, thought the scene too corny and didn’t want to shoot it. Stewart begged them to just try shooting it–to see what it would be like. He was just able to talk them into it. It proved to be the “money” scene in the movie and was probably responsible for half of their total box-office take.

My point: it was a good script and it got made, despite unfavorable headwinds in the current production climate.

Warren and I were challenged with the task of coming up with 13 great episode ideas for season 1 of what was then still called The Jellybean Odyssey. We’d only written a few scripts in our lives up to that point. This was a huge task.

In a way the task was all the larger because we were inventing a whole fantasy world. Writing a cop show or a courtroom drama provides certain automatic parameters on what you might write about. This was wide open, and for that very reason created anxiety. When you can do anything, what do you do?

For inspiration we got ourselves a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and of Robert Graves’s telling of The Golden Fleece. Although our show was called an Odyssey, Warren and I felt that Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece might provide a more workable story-template, perhaps because in Homer’s epic so many of the adventures involved fantastic monsters–and we weren’t planning to do a “monster” show. I’ve already described how our character Jay started out as Jason, and was shortened to Jay after we always abbreviated his name as the letter J, and referred to him as such. Jason had a definite goal, he had his crew of Argonauts as our Jay had his companions on the journey, and he had specific episodic adventures en route to the fabled Golden Fleece at Colchis on the Black Sea. As we ventured on our own voyage of creation, this was our security blanket.

The stories we read did spark discussion, but in fact we did not wind up using very much from the texts. Gradually it became clear that our fantasy world could not be a place of random episodic adventures (“geek of the week” as we called it). We had to give our world a structure and a purpose; it had to be designed and built, in some sense, as an obstacle to Jay and his wishes. It had to be systematically opposed to him somehow.

Because Warren and I shared an interest in world problems and political philosophy, we tended to talk about these things and get excited about adapting these ideas to our show. Gradually the idea of kids running a kind of authoritarian police state began to emerge. What could provide more conflict and danger for our hero than that? At the same time, what could be more creepy and more comic than the idea of teenagers running a police state? We loved this idea.

In some ways the real test of our series idea was episode 2–the equivalent of a recording artist’s “sophomore album” or a novelist’s “sophomore book”. If you have a great first CD or book, you’re under huge pressure to replicate your success with your second effort. Most artists who make a big splash with their first effort fail at their second. We didn’t want this to happen to us–and, I’m pleased to say, it didn’t.

To be continued…

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building vocab one strip of paper at a time

Many people believe that we think by using language–words. Not me. Indeed, I think it’s easy to show that this idea is not true. In my view, language is a communication technology. But it’s still extremely important, and all the more so if you happen to be, as I am, a writer.

I work continually to build my command of English. One of my methods of doing that is to write down new words as I encounter them in my reading. My bookmarks are blank slips of paper on which I write each new word as I come across it, along with its definition from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. I have a good supply of these bookmarks, and they get shuffled around as I finish reading one book and start another, so by the time I complete a bookmark it is usually filled with words from a number of different books read over the course of a few years.

Have these words ever had to bunk together like this before?

Okay, here goes:

To give you an idea, I thought I would share the contents of a recently completed bookmark. Most of the words were not new to me in the sense of never having seen them before. My main criterion for adding a word is that it not be in my active vocabulary. I ask myself, “Could I use this word in my own writing right now?” If I lack confidence about that, then I add the word and its definition. When a word has multiple senses, I usually just write down the sense in which it is being used in the book where I found it.

colophon 1: inscription placed at the end of a book or manuscript usually with facts relative to its production

venerate 1: to regard with reverential respect or with admiring deference

advert 1: to turn the mind or attention–used with to

nascent coming or having recently come into existence

trepidation 1: archaic: a tremulous motion: tremor 2: timorous uncertain agitation: apprehension

barrow male hog castrated before sexual maturity

chamberlain 2a: a chief officer in the household of a king or nobleman

ipecac 2: emetic and expectorant drug that contains emetine and is prepared from ipecac especially as a syrup for use in treating accidental poisoning

emetine [yes, sometimes I have to look up words in the definitions too] amorphous alkaloid extracted from ipecac root and used as an emetic and expectorant

agraffe hook-and-loop fastening, especially: an ornamental clasp used on armor or costumes

awn one of the slender bristles that terminate the glumes of the spikelet in some cereal and other grasses

byssus 1: fine probably linen cloth of ancient times

galliot 1: small swift galley formerly used in the Mediterranean

breastwork temporary fortification

baldachin 1: cloth canopy fixed or carried over an important person or a sacred object

rodomontade 2: vain boasting or bluster: rant

shirtwaist woman’s tailored garment (as a blouse or dress) with details copied from men’s shirts

anodyne 1: something that soothes, calms, or comforts; 2: a drug that allays pain

benison blessing, benediction

spavined 2: old and decrepit; over-the-hill

organdy very fine transparent muslin with a stiff finish

linguiça form of smoke-cured pork sausage seasoned with garlic and paprika in Portuguese-speaking countries

selectman one of a board of officials elected in towns of all New England states except Rhode Island to serve as the chief administrative authority of the town

reredos a usually ornamental wood or stone screen or partition wall behind an altar

morris chair easy chair with adjustable back and removable cushions

larrup 2 dialect: to move indolently or clumsily

Parsons table usually rectangular table having straight legs that are flush with the edge of the top

span pair of animals (as mules) usually matched in appearance and action and driven together

That’s my bookmark: both sides. The final step of the process is that I review my bookmark by reading all the entries aloud to myself before recycling it. Formerly I did this in privacy and solitude, but lately I have taken to recording videos of this heart-stopping action and posting them to my Facebook author page. If you think you can handle the excitement, you can watch me read the above list, and see how I grapple with pronunciation.

Going through this process means that often I remember exactly where I learned certain words. If you would like to build your own vocabulary, I warmly recommend this method as one way of doing so.


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 25

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.

The Odyssey odyssey part 25, told by Paul VitolsFall 1991. The pilot episode of The Jellybean Odyssey was produced and ready. The network, though officially never forthcoming with praise (well, except for their own ideas), seemed pleased with it and certainly intended to broadcast it, but not for several months.

This was alarming. Why? For one thing, if the network intended to await the ratings of the broadcast pilot before making a decision to pick up more episodes, then we’d be looking ahead to another year before we could start making–or even writing–new shows. This was bad for two reasons.

One was that our stars were 11-year-olds, growing fast. Every extra month that slipped by without making more episodes allowed them to grow visibly older. If the network really dawdled before deciding to order more episodes, Jay would have sprouted several inches and had his voice change between the pilot and episode 2. The network never showed the least sign of caring about this factor. We knew that if it came down to it, the network might wait two years, order more episodes, then, when told the kids had grown to adult size in the meantime, shrug and move on to some other show.

Another problem with delay was financial. Warren, who was trained as a cook, could get “disposable” jobs readily enough. He was also single and lived (wisely) in humble rental accommodation. I was married and carrying two mortgages plus a personal loan, much of this debt at a high rate of interest. Kimmie was working full-time, but I had quit my job in September 1989, and two years later had exhausted all my savings. I had written a story treatment for my would-be kids’ feature film, My Dad the Butler, but the Foundation to Underwrite New Drama had opted not to fund a first draft, closing off that possible revenue source. I was still earning $150 a week for writing reader’s reports on other writers’ unsolicited script submissions to CBC Drama in Vancouver, but this was nothing like the income I needed if I were to meet my obligations.

Meanwhile, Warren and I, to survive, had drawn advances from Michael Chechik against future work on the show, and had tapped that well as far as we could. To keep my living situation going I juggled, I scrimped, I borrowed. As worries piled up, I would think back to my interview with Sarah Scott Simonson, the psychic I had consulted in 1990. She predicted that I would undergo such a period of financial juggling and dodging, but that it would end well, with my TV show being picked up and revenue coming in. She had counseled me to keep juggling and not to give up.

I didn’t plan to give up, not unless I absolutely had to. But in the meantime the uncertainty was creating stress in my marriage. Kimmie was increasingly worried that we were going to lose our house, and all I could offer in response were faith-based assurances that it wouldn’t happen–I wouldn’t let it happen. And I wouldn’t: if it came to the crunch, I’d get out there and start delivering pizzas or doing whatever it took. But neither of us had ever taken on such large financial obligations before, and Kimmie was a worrier by nature. She was doing her bit, but by itself it wasn’t enough. I had to contribute. Sometimes the tension was too much and we fought. I had faith in the project, but it was a tense time, much of which I spent with my gut in some kind of knot, and lying awake at night.

Week after week dragged by. The CBC was silent as the Sphinx. Michael Chechik at some point asked CBC’s head of programming, Ivan Fecan, about how things looked for an episode order, and Fecan responded, “If you want an answer now, the answer’s no”–his way of pushing back against being rushed.

Week after week. October. November. We’d hear rumors of network movement. The new budget year was coming; they’d have to sort out their spending for the coming seasons. Surely soon we’d hear…

Maybe they were going to wait till after the pilot was broadcast after all, effectively turning out would-be groundbreaking TV series into a one-off half-hour, like “What’s Wrong with Neil?” All because we were new and untested and unimportant compared to their flagship efforts, like Street Legal. We’d made a good half-hour, but we were small fry, newbies, unknown. We didn’t matter.


Offhand I’m not sure of the exact day, but it was probably Friday 6 December (not Friday the 13th–surely I would have remembered that!) that I got a phone call from Michael Chechik in the afternoon. He excitedly reported that he’d heard from the network, and they had ordered the rest of the scripts for season 1 of The Jellybean Odyssey to be written.

Yes!! This wasn’t an actual order for episodes to be produced–but from the writer’s standpoint it was the next-best thing, since it meant more work and more income. Also, even though buying scripts was relatively cheap for the network, they wouldn’t be doing it unless they had a good idea that they were planning to go ahead and order season 1. In short: it was the best news possible.

I immediately passed the news on to Kimmie and Warren. And Kimmie and I decided to meet for a celebratory drink when she’d finished work. We met at Sailor Hagar’s, a neighborhood pub close to ICBC head office (Warren may have been there too–sorry Warren, don’t quite recall). In the standing-room-only bustle of the Friday afternoon, end-of-week celebration, Kimmie and I drank a pint and savored the exultation and relief of having survived a kind of desert crossing together.

Something I had long wanted had now actually, that day, come to pass: I was a guy with a TV series. We were giddy with excitement and happiness. Never before–or since–had I felt that I’d so thoroughly earned a celebratory pint of beer. What a relief.

To be continued…

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The Odyssey odyssey, part 24

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.

The Odyssey odyssey part 24, told by Paul VitolsWith our pilot episode rescued by the expert film editing of Jana Fritsch, the rest of the postproduction elements fell into place during the fall of 1991 and the show was finished. Our producer Michael Chechik engaged North Vancouver composer Michael Conway Baker to score the film (he had also scored our first production, “What’s Wrong with Neil?”).

I don’t recall exactly where or when I saw the finished product, a videocassette of the edited, scored, sound-mixed show ready for broadcast. It was probably in the conference room of the Omni-Films suite in Gastown, and it was probably with my cowriter Warren. But I do recall my reaction:


Michael Conway Baker’s music added another dimension to the production. I remember watching act 3, in which Jay is suspended over the swimming pool in a modified shopping cart, being interrogated by Flash, bully leader of the self-styled “swimming-pool club”. An argument breaks out between Flash and his number-two man over whether to dunk Jay in the pool or not. Michael had put in a kind of percussion cue, like bamboo drumming on skulls or something, that gave it a primal, Lord of the Flies-ish quality. Meanwhile, Jorge Montesi, the director, had given the scene exactly the same kind of edge and menace he would have given to a late-night adult crime drama. The result was hair-raising–it was fantastic. We had taken kids’ television to a new place, created a new kind of show–and here was the proof unspooling right in front of our eyes.

As the final shot craned up over the deserted, toy-littered road of the Burrard Indian Reserve, and the three reconnected friends Jay, Flash, and Alpha set off to seek Jay’s father and home, with Michael’s major chords suggesting a new, hopeful beginning, I felt sure beyond any doubt that we had a winner. Warren agreed. We were amazed and of course proud that something we had written had been turned into a show so good.

It had imperfections, of course, but that’s inevitable. In the main, the story takes off, grabs the audience, and doesn’t let go. (A year later, our story editor in development, Hart Hanson, who was now also a professor of creative writing at UBC, invited Warren and me to talk to his screenwriting class. To the best of our ability we answered questions about writing and dealing with story editors and the network. Then Hart put in the videocassette we’d brought to show people act 1 of the pilot. When act 1 was finished the class was over and Hart went to switch off the TV, but his class, glued to the set, waved him away–they wanted to keep watching.)

Even David Pears, our local CBC exec, was happy. No grousing about the infamous scene 49 now. After screening the pilot for himself he was able to say with an enthusiastic smile: “It’s a 23-minute feature film!”

And the network in Toronto? I believe they were happy with the pilot. They were probably expressing worries about whether the show was “kid” enough–whether kids would be able to follow the jumps between different worlds. This had been a big concern of theirs all through development, and the occasion of much tweaking and rejigging of minor points for Warren and me–work we found to be needless fussing with irrelevancies.

I decided to do a little market test of my own. My stepdaughter Robin, age 10, was in grade 5 at the time–right in our target audience range. I asked her teacher, Mr. Wiet, whether I might screen our pilot for the class to get their response. He welcomed the idea and we set up a date.

So one wintry day I went up to Ridgeway Elementary School a few blocks away with my videocassette, and after a brief introduction by Mr. Wiet, I turned over my cassette, the lights were dimmed, and the kids watched the show.

They were spellbound. Apart from giggling at a couple of the humorous moments, they watched silent and rapt. The only disturbance was caused by the audiovisual-nerd kid in charge of the remote. Because he wouldn’t stop playing with the remote, he stopped or paused the episode a few times while the show was going. His classmates and teacher were remarkably tolerant of his fooling around; I wanted to slap him in the head. As I expected, there were no comprehension problems, there was no puzzlement in the audience. They knew perfectly well what was going on every moment. Indeed, some kids were muttering things like, “he’s in a dream–why not just imagine a gun or something?”

Afterwards I answered a few questions, but soon I was walking away again with my cassette. I felt perfectly confident that I was carrying a hit show in my hands.

To be continued…

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The Odyssey odyssey, part 23

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.

The Odyssey odyssey part 23, told by Paul VitolsIt was (I think) September 1991; the main filming for the pilot of The Jellybean Odyssey was done and our show was in “postproduction”–essentially all those things done on a film after the cameras have finished shooting. Primary among these was editing.

Omni-Films had started out as a producer of documentaries and corporate films. Their first feature documentary, Greenpeace: Voyages to Save the Whales, had garnered Michael Chechik a Genie. Our script “What’s Wrong with Neil?” was their first foray into drama. “The Fall”, the origin episode for our new would-be series, was their second. The expertise of the film editors that Michael had worked with hitherto had therefore been in documentary-making, a type of filmmaking that arguably is even more dependent on good editing than drama, since documentaries are often “scripted” or built or “discovered” in the editing room.

The editing team for our show was composed of excellent editors who had come from documentary-making. And the first cut of the episode was proficient, correct, followed the script, used the excellent footage shot by the director Jorge Montesi–but the story came across as flat and slow-moving. I recall watching an early rough cut of the episode, my excitement at finally getting to see the result of our efforts on a TV screen, and my growing feeling of unease and letdown.

“My god,” I thought, “was our script no good after all? How could we have added more zip, more pace to our story?”

I had a bleak feeling that we had not written the script as well as we should have, and that somehow this failure had not been caught or corrected in all the many readings and story meetings over the past two years. It was a terrible thought: our show was less good on film than it was on paper!

Warren and I were depressed. We weren’t as good as we thought we were–and neither was our show. And here I’d quit my day-job.

We met with Michael and the local CBC execs to talk about the show. We all agreed that it wasn’t firing on all cylinders. It was hard to put one’s finger on what exactly was not working, but one thing that stood out was the climax of the show. This was the section in which our hero, Jay, is dropped from a modified shopping-cart into a swimming pool, and remains submerged there for a long time, apparently drowning, while in the upworld his “real” self is undergoing the crisis of his head injury, with his quickly rising intracranial pressure threatening to kill him quickly. We had written intercut shots to an electronic monitor showing his pressure level, and it goes into “alarm” mode when a critical threshold is crossed. Somehow the pace here seemed slow and unexciting, even sleepy.

David Pears, the CBC executive, took the problem in hand. He personally supervised a recut of the show’s climax, probably using a CBC editor in a CBC editing suite. A couple of days later I saw the result: a much tighter, snappier, more gripping climax. I felt jubilation–and a jump of hope.

Indeed, I was so excited and glad that I went into Pears’s office (he’d left for the day), wrote him a personal thank-you note, and left it on his desk.

Soon Michael was looking for an experienced editor of drama to do a recut, and found one in the person of Jana Fritsch, who had been working on the CBS series MacGyver starring Richard Dean Anderson, which was also produced in Vancouver. Jana (whom I never met) did a whole new edit of the pilot.

Michael slotted the resulting videocassette into a VCR for us writers to watch. What a difference! I was intrigued to see how Jana had handled the material. She cut frequently, most often to show characters’ reactions to what was happening or being said in the scene. It created a fast-moving feeling in which the characters were involved with the story. Next time you watch a drama, pay attention for awhile to how it is edited: notice when the camera cuts to characters’ reactions. The characters may simply be watching what’s going on, but their involvement in the scene brings the audience’s involvement. Good directors always film these “reaction shots”, and good editors use them creatively to knit scenes together and give them flow and feeling.

When I saw Jana’s recut of the pilot I felt I’d seen a whole new show–and a damn good one. There was our script after all! There was our story–the edgy, fast-paced adventure we’d put on the page! We had written it! Jana Fritsch had been able to tell it with pictures.

Now I knew we had a winner–we all knew it. Even David Pears was happy. No mention now of the “tension-blowing” scene 49. Scene 49–Jay’s climactic encounter with his mother in a mist-shrouded warehouse–was in there, big as life, and delivering the full goosebump-inducing effect it was intended to have. What a relief. After two years of struggling to get this thing made, what a relief.

To be continued…

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The Odyssey odyssey, part 22

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.

The Odyssey odyssey part 22, told by Paul VitolsI first became involved in filmmaking with my friend Brad in grade 7. He (or I suppose his mother) had a Eumig 8mm home-movie camera. (Video-production equipment in those days–1972–was large, expensive, and existed only in professional studios.) With this fantastic resource in his possession, Brad was keen to make films, and so was I.

We did some short films and some animation on Brad’s Eumig, but ran up against the problem that to make something more than the most rudimentary film, you had to be able to edit the film. Later, as we got into junior high school, we were delighted to find that the school owned a new, high-end Canon super-8mm film camera. Goodbye Eumig–this was what we wanted to make movies with now.

Our real opportunity came in grade 10 in 1975, when, as the final big assignment of the year, our English teacher told us to form groups and create an audiovisual or other media project of some kind. Fantastic! Here was our chance to get our hands on some school time and equipment to make a film!

Brad and I jumped to it and started writing a film script. It would have to be silent, of course–movie sound technology was far beyond our reach–but we could do a lot with silent film.

Brad wanted to do a story around a strange, mysterious instrument that had belonged to his late father, who had been a marine electrician of some kind. Labeled a “field strength indicator”, it was a fist-sized gray box with a needle-dial, a single rotating knob, and an extendable antenna like on a portable radio. We didn’t know what it was–it was just a device of some kind. As far as we knew, it didn’t actually do anything. But from this prop grew a story which we called, imaginatively, “The Device”, a Cold War satire told from a Keystone Kop perspective. To give our Cold War story bite, our device needed to be a secret weapon of some kind. We hit on the idea that whoever held the weapon could simply point its antenna at some object, twist the knob, and that object would simply disappear–disintegrate, vanish. This relatively simple movie effect could be done in-camera, and also gave us a plausible Doomsday Weapon for our story.

Fantastic! This would make a cool story–and we already had the prop!

Excitedly, Brad and I spent hours and days in his living-room, scribbling lists of shots on sheets of looseleaf, unfolding our complex satirical farce. At age 16 I was (co)writing my first film script. I didn’t know it at the time, but writing a silent movie is perhaps the best scriptwriting training, because it forces you to think of how to tell a story purely with pictures–and this remains the key skill of the scriptwriter, even one who has dialogue at his disposal.

There was no typing; our finished script was a rumpled sheaf of looseleaf pages of scribbled shots, crossings-out, and marginal notes. Armed with this, we innocently undertook the shockingly difficult task of producing our own 30-minute movie. With our friend Tim, who had a job and therefore money, as our third producer, we spent weeks on various locations around the city, mainly in parks, shooting our madcap farce (which ends by “disappearing” planet Earth when a little kid points the device at the ground). Indeed we never finished filming by the end of the school year, and had to show our teacher Mr. Ryan our script and all our raw footage so he could give us a mark.

We pushed on filming through the summer, and continued to work on postproduction in our off-hours when we started grade 11 in the fall. We didn’t actually finish “The Device” until we were most of the way through the school year.

One of our production expenditures was to buy editing equipment for super-8mm film: a viewer with two hand-cranked reels for film, and a splicing block that made precision cuts to the film and allowed us to splice lengths of film with transparent editing tape. Finally we had the tools not only to shoot a film, but to assemble it.

Setting up our editing bench in Brad’s spare room (which also housed his piano), Brad and I gradually put together the film, adding scenes and sequences as they were filmed and developed. Getting some coaching from my father, we set up our editing room with proper gear such as a board with pins on which to hang strips of film, using a lined wastebasket to hold the tail-ends of longer clips. We cut and recut, winding and rewinding the emerging scenes to view them on our little viewer–the first audience for our growing movie.

I learned that I loved editing film. When you shoot a film, often with multiple takes of each shot, there is no sense of story when you develop the raw scenes. The story emerges–or reemerges–in the editing process. Find the right points to make your cuts, and you develop a seamless, flowing story (provided it’s been shot properly). We fiddled and fussed, trimming frames, taking shots out, putting them back in, and rolling the film through the viewer one more time. We discovered that we needed more or different shots, and added these to our list for future shoots. We did one such pickup shot–a closeup of a note taped inside a newspaper–out on Brad’s patio while taking a break from editing.

The finished product was very good for a first effort. Although silent, the movie had a piano score composed by Brad and synchronized with the picture via a magnetic stripe on the edge of the finished film–the reigning technology at the time for adding sound to super-8mm. We got our classmate Joyce to perform most of the piano music and recorded it in the music room on the school’s baby grand piano, using the school’s high-end Revox audio tape recorder. “The Device” went on to win Best High School Film at the 1976 B.C. Student Film Festival, and was an audience favorite at the festival screenings. Yes: people laughed at our comedy! (The festival projectionist said to us, after screening our film, “That must’ve been fun to make!” We exchanged glances; we might have used the word “grueling” or “frustrating” instead.)

All this by way of saying that I developed an early appreciation for the importance of editing in the filmmaking process. In a sense a film editor is more like a scriptwriter than like a member of the production process. It makes a big difference how a film is edited, and indeed film editor is a big creative credit in the movie business, along with the writer, director, cinematographer, and composer.

Editing was the next hurdle for our TV pilot The Jellybean Odyssey, but I’m again going to have to save that for next time.

To be continued…

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The Odyssey odyssey, part 21

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.

The Odyssey odyssey part 21, told by Paul VitolsThe effort to make the best possible pilot episode had the crew working long hours and pushing the envelope every day. I remember that on the last day of filming they ran out of time and had to find a substitute location for what was also the last scene in the script: when Jay has been saved from drowning in the downworld swimming pool and has re-befriended his waking-life companions Keith and Donna in the guise of Flash and Alpha. He’s got his telescope back, and he’s got to get it to his father and get himself home. The three heroes set out down the road to adventure.

Filming here in North Vancouver, the crew needed somewhere nearby. The locations manager came up with the idea of filming the last shot on the Burrard First Nations reserve, a short way along the waterfront from the old Versatile Pacific shipyard. He got permission from the band, and there they went with a crane to shoot the final shot of the pilot: craning up as the three kids walk down a road that is suburban and familiar, and yet also different and hard to place. The set people put an abandoned tricycle and maybe one or two other toys on the road to add a slightly forlorn and mysterious touch. It worked perfectly, I thought.

Yahoo! Our show was in the can! On time and, well, probably not on budget–but not ridiculously overbudget, as it would be if extra filming days had to be added. (I worked on a movie once in the 1980s whose first assistant director at the end of each shooting day would raise his two hands with thumbs and forefingers touching to symbolize zeros, and declare, “oh and oh–zero days ahead, zero days behind”–meaning the show was on schedule, the state he desired.)

We had not only survived the rigors of working with the hot-tempered director Jorge Montesi–he had delivered an excellent piece of film. Because he was in such demand, I don’t think he was even able to supervise a full cut of the episode beyond a rough cut before he had to leave for his next gig. But the scenes he had already put together were terrific, we thought. I remember saying goodbye to Jorge at the Omni-Film offices.

“The show looks great,” I said, shaking his hand, “it’s brilliant work.”

“Don’t use that word,” said Jorge, abashed but clearly pleased. (I’d managed to embarrass Jorge Montesi!) “It was an excellent script.”

With that he was gone. Getting the show ready to broadcast would be the task of Michael Chechik and the postproduction team. And it turned out that the adventure of getting our show made was not yet over.

To be continued…

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The Odyssey odyssey, part 20

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.

The Odyssey odyssey part 20, told by Paul VitolsIn part 19 I left off talking about the production in summer 1991 of the pilot episode of the series we were calling The Jellybean Odyssey. It was going well, but a nagging problem was coming to a head: the local CBC executive charged with supervising our show, David Pears, wanted a certain scene from the script removed.

In those early days, Warren and I, still ignorant of the filmmaking convention that has a script’s scenes numbered only when it is budgeted by the production department, had numbered the pilot’s scenes ourselves. The conflict was arising over the scene numbered 49: a scene in the climax of the show in which Jay, undergoing a medical crisis of elevated intracranial pressure that could quickly kill him, has a strange, intermediate-world experience. In the downworld of his coma-fantasy, he has just been dumped into a swimming-pool by the young thugs who have taken him captive. As the pool foams strangely and Jay remains submerged, he suddenly finds himself emerging from a different pool in a strange space–one in which his mother Val is standing nearby. In a calm, surreal exchange, she begs him to come home, and he calmly tells her that he cannot–he has to retrieve his dad’s telescope. With that, he plunges back into the water, to be pulled out of the swimming-pool back in the downworld, and saved from immediate death in the upworld.

Just about everyone liked scene 49. Warren and I, the writers, certainly liked it. Michael Chechik, the producer, liked it. Jorge Montesi, the director, liked it. The only one who didn’t like it was Pears–and he made it clear that it had to come out.

Michael, in his nice, accommodating way, kept trying different ways to cajole Pears into accepting scene 49, all to no avail. Pears warned him not to waste budget filming that scene, because it was not going to wind up in the finished show.

So, with the show in production and scenes actually being filmed, the argument was coming to a head.

One morning we were to have a supposedly decisive meeting on it right in the suite of CBC rooms being used as the production office for the show. Pears wanted to put the scene behind us once and for all.

Just before the meeting I decided to prepare a presentation. I went to the art department to beg a sheet of chart-paper and a felt marker, and drew a decision-table, using some of my business-analytical skills cultivated in my work at ICBC. I listed the positive and negative features of scene 49 in a kind of cost-benefit analysis of using the scene in the show. Armed with my chart, I went into the meeting, held in a tiny little office, and, pinning it to the wall, made my pitch for scene 49.

I took each of the reasons that Pears had given for why the scene should be cut and countered them with positive reasons why it should stay. Pears thought the scene would be confusing for the audience–they wouldn’t understand what was going on. And he thought, most of all, that it “blew the tension” of the whole series–that it short-circuited the goal of the series by having Jay come into contact with his mother. Now it would seem that they had a secret deal or understanding that they were both complicit in his being unconscious.

I argued that the tension was not “blown” at all; the “meeting” of boy and mother was happening in some unconscious, emotional realm in which they simply expressed their connection and love for each other; it was a spiritual scene, with a weird, symbolic setting to emphasize the fact. The kid audience would in no way be confused by it; they would understand immediately that this scene was happening in a special space relating to the life/death urgency of Jay’s situation. Scene 49 did not ruin our show–it made our show!

As I made my pitch, I noted that Pears enjoyed the presentation. He seemed to like the creativity of using an analytical chart to sell the scene, and liked being the audience of such a pitch. He smiled. But it was to no avail. Scene 49 blew the tension of the whole series, and would have to go.

Pears’s words to Michael: “Pay me now or pay me later–it’s not going in.”

We on the production side just couldn’t accept this. My fear was that in the press of production, scene 49 might become a “luxury” scene that, if we ran short of time or money, would not get filmed. But Jorge had made up his mind on it.

“I don’t care what they say,” he said. “I’m shooting that scene and I’m cutting it in.”

Just to be sure, I showed up to watch the filming of it. Scene 49 was scheduled with other scenes shot down at the abandoned Versatile Pacific shipyard a short walk from my house. When I went on the set, they’d constructed a special pool in a dilapidated, World War 1-era fabrication building. The effects people pumped the space full of mist, and Jorge shot a very powerful and poetic scene. He understood the scene perfectly and nailed it on film. They did two or three takes of Illya Woloshyn emerging from the still pool, each time with crew on hand to immediately fish him out, towel him dry, and blanket him warmly. The scene ended up with Val, played by Janet Hodgkinson, standing on an old staircase, repeating her last words to Jay before he went into the ravine and fell: “Watch out for weirdos.”

When I saw the scene on film I knew it was dynamite. To cut this scene out of the show would be an instance of the worst kind of network interference–a deliberate step toward making an extraordinary show mediocre. It was the climax of the climax–the heart of our show! Imagine wanting to cut it out!

As was customary, Jorge supervised the first edit of the show, and put in scene 49. Would the network really make us rip it out?

In the event, talk about cutting out scene 49 subsided. We, the filmmakers, didn’t bring it up, and neither, anymore, did the network. I suspect that what happened was that Angela Bruce and the executives in Toronto liked the scene, and overruled Pears. I was just thankful that we’d got it on film.

The film looked great over all: imaginative and filled with “edge”. Jorge had brought a nice, adult-network look to our kids’ show. The next problem was getting it edited into a workable story.

To be continued…

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creating characters, part 6: choosing a character arc

In the first 5 parts of this series we looked at the early stages of the process of creating a fictional character, which got us to combining a few archetypes to form the nucleus or chassis of the character. Now what do we do?

One thing to bear in mind is that no part of the story-creation process can be done altogether independently of the other parts. The story, a work of art, is a whole, and its various parts must all change and adapt together in order to realize the fulfillment of the whole work. If you change your plot, then you must also change one or more of your characters, even if only slightly. And if you change your theme or the controlling idea of the work, then that will imply big changes to plot and character–and everything else.

Similarly, when doing the initial creation and shaping of characters, it must be done with the aims of the whole work in mind. A character is not created in a vacuum, but right from the start has a mission to fulfill in the story; every character has a purpose, and needs to be designed in order to best fulfill that purpose.

An important point is whether a character is going to undergo change in the course of the story. Character change is always a key part of the theme of a story; it is through showing the change in a character that an author makes his strongest and most emphatic points, at least at the moral level of a story, which is the level most important to a story’s artistic success.

creating characters, part 6: Ebenezer Scrooge

“I don’t deserve to be this happy.”

Consider A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Ebenezer Scrooge, the dour, callous, solitary miser, undergoes one of the most profound and memorable changes of any character in literary history, turning into a generous, affectionate, and joyful man. It’s a mark of Dickens’s genius that he makes such a vast change believable. By having recourse to the supernatural–by having Scrooge visited by ghosts–he is also able to bring about the change in a single night: Christmas Eve. We see how Scrooge’s unhealed wounds from youth have turned him into the hard man he is, and we see how Scrooge’s late partner Jacob Marley and the three ghosts of Christmas administer the tough love that Scrooge needs in order to see the light–and not just see it but become it by changing his behavior and his life. The three ghosts skillfully work Scrooge’s character, adjusting it the way a chiropractor adjusts the alignment of your joints. They put him through the wringer and scare him to death.

A Christmas Carol is an example of positive character change. In general this is the pattern of comedy in the widest sense: stories that have happy endings. The opposite is tragedy: stories in which the main character changes for the worse. Here an example is Macbeth by Shakespeare: a Scottish noble, driven by ambition, murders his king in order to gain his crown, and he finds that in order to hold it he must double down and keep killing–and it doesn’t end well for him. A more recent one is the TV series Breaking Bad, which might also be called The Tragedy of Walter White.

A third pattern is one in which the main character does not himself change, but he brings about change in the characters around him. An example of this was the 1936 movie Mr. Deeds Goes to Town starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, which I watched last weekend. Deeds, played by Cooper, is a decent, sensible, and eccentric small-town man who is whisked off to New York when he inherits a large fortune from a distant uncle. There he becomes a laughing stock among the cynical socialites, but those who are closest to him, such as the reporter (Arthur) who inveigles her way into his life and his streetwise personal assistant, find themselves first touched and then changed by Deeds’ integrity. A more recent example is Beverly Hills Cop, the 1984 movie in which Eddie Murphy, an irreverent maverick cop from Detroit, transforms his straitlaced California colleagues into more relaxed versions of themselves. A still more recent example is the 1994 movie Forrest Gump.

In storytelling, character change is known technically as the character arc, and the 3 kinds of change stories outlined here are known as positive-change, negative-change, and flat arcs. While good stories can be created that do not feature any kind of character change, stories that do feature character change tend to be the best and the most powerful. Creating characters who change, therefore, is an advanced technique used by storytellers who want to develop the best possible stories.

So in the process of creating characters, you need to determine what kind of story you’re writing in terms of character change. If you’re writing a James Bond–style action story, there may be no character change; but if you want to write something more sophisticated, something that has significant moral meaning, then you should plan to show characters undergoing change in your story.

As for what kind of character arc to create, that depends on the view of the world that you want to present. The basic view underlying the positive-change arc is that virtue leads to happiness, with the specifics of which virtue and what kind of happiness being determined by the needs of your story and what you want to say. Broadly, this is the story plan of comedy: stories that have happy endings.

The negative-change arc, on the other hand, the arc of tragedy, shows how vice leads to misery or disaster. Just as comedies are inspirational tales, showing the audience how to live, tragedies are cautionary tales, showing the dangers of the dark side. Both are valuable, edifying, and emotionally satisfying for an audience if done well. Some writers, such as Shakespeare, are adept at both. Others prefer to stick to one form.

The flat-arc story lends itself to comedy, although there may be tragic stories in which a main character corrupts others around him without undergoing change himself (I can’t think of one offhand). In general I would say that if you reverse the polarity of these arcs, that is, show that virtue leads to misery or vice to happiness, then I would say you are writing a black comedy. I had not thought of this before, but I think this may be a good definition of black comedy: a story in which the consequences of moral actions are inverted. And if that’s your view of the world, then you should by all means write one.

This choice, of what kind of arc you intend to present, has big consequences for the way you choose and design your characters. Characters who change need a certain complexity, for some aspects of them change while others do not. You as a writer need to know what those are. And you need to design a situation that will bring about the desired change.

There’s lots to do. We’ll pick it up there next time.

In the meantime, take a look at my Creating Characters reading list (one of a growing collection). If you haven’t already done so, now would be a good time to catch up on parts 1 – 5 in this series.

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The Odyssey odyssey, part 19

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.

The Odyssey odyssey part 19, told by Paul VitolsDespite some bumps and anxieties along the path of preparing to produce the pilot of our would-be adventure-fantasy series The Jellybean Odyssey, things progressed quite well and soon, sometime in summer 1991 (August, I think), filming actually began.

The director, Jorge Montesi, though temperamental and hotheaded, knew what he was doing and took pains to get the show looking and feeling a certain way. Indeed, it was because he cared so much about the product that he was sometimes difficult for people like me–that is, those who did not actually report to him, but had more of a “staff” relationship with him–to deal with. After all, if someone who reports to you disagrees with you, it’s easy to resolve: “do as I say–now.”

Jorge was proficient, effective, and creative. The crew was also very skilled and enthusiastic. Often we heard that people loved the show idea and the script, and they went out of their way to give it their all.

Warren and I were pleased and relieved that the tree-fort-in-the-ravine idea that we’d written would be filmed after all. Indeed, the locations manager had found a perfect ravine in a park in nearby Lynn Valley–exactly what we’d had in mind when we wrote the script. The park authorities allowed the crew to build a tree-fort in a tree there–as long as they didn’t use any nails, screws, or other fasteners that penetrated the bark of the trees! They ingeniously came up with a sophisticated tree-fort high above the ground, all made with non-penetrating bindings.

One sign that Jorge was serious about shooting the script as written was the fact that he actually used a crane-shot that Warren and I had written in (scriptwriting texts tell you not to put camera angles and such in scripts, on the grounds that that is “directing on paper”). But we felt this had a clear story purpose: a crane-shot going up the tree to the tree-fort, to show how high it was. Thus we hear the dialogue of the boys in the fort before we finally see them–after we, the audience, have “climbed” the tree to get there.

I think they could not get a real crane into the ravine, so the crew rigged a bosun’s chair on a pulley hanging from high up, and they pulled the cameraman, Trig Singer, up by a rope while he did a handheld shot on the way up. Scary–but he seemed completely calm. The boys had to be cued to get into motion at a certain point, moving along the homemade catwalks high above the ravine floor. It took a few takes. I was delighted that the crane-shot went in, and felt that it was a sign that our show was going to be special.

Another big item in the pilot was the fall itself. The show’s stunt coordinator was the veteran Vancouver stuntman Bill Ferguson. The fall would be done by his own son, who was about 11 years old himself. I watched Ferguson and his team prepare the stunt–they were there for hours while main-unit filming was being done elsewhere. Ferguson’s team prepared a large collapsible cushion beneath the tree-fort, I don’t remember the materials used now. I do remember that they prepared the stunt with great care. When time to film came, they had at least three cameras running on it. I was impressed by the courage of the young Ferguson, and by the concerned and close-knit teamwork of the stunt crew. It went well, and we spectators burst into applause.

Another exciting part of filming was the hospital scenes of the upworld, when the unconscious Jay is taken to emergency. For this, a real intensive care unit (ICU) was used at Eagle Ridge Hospital outside Vancouver. Sadly, this newly built hospital had never had enough funding to be able to actually operate its state-of-the-art ICU; it had only ever been used as a film set! So the location was real, and those were real nurses moonlighting as actors who whisk Jay into his bed for treatment.

As a writer, it’s very gratifying to be on the set when your script is being produced (at least, it usually is, in my experience). You’ve done your part already; you’ve suffered and sweated. Now others have to do their bit, and they stride around with colored copies of your script, all marked up with their own technical notes. The actors carry “sides”–miniaturized pages of script, each actor only with the pages containing his or her lines. I ate the snacks, chatted with Michael, who was also more or less an onlooker at this point, and generally enjoyed the status of being an “above-the-line” member of the production–that is, one of the main creative positions, as opposed to the technical and craft positions that constitute most of a film crew.

Filming was going very well. But there was a dark cloud on the horizon. There was a controversial scene in our script, which our local network executive David Pears had decided he didn’t want in the show.

But that’s for next time.

To be continued…

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