5 Tips for Studying Scripts

If you’re aspiring to become a writer (or perhaps aspiring to become a better one), some of the most helpful advice you’ll ever receive sits in plain sight at the WGF Library. You just have to know where to look.

Hint: Look at the cork board directly to the right of the glass door when you exit. Tacked there, is a three-page document entitled “Notes on Writing by Gene Roddenberry.” In it, Mr. Star Trek himself lays out a simple, personal manifesto on what it takes to learn the craft and persist as a screen storyteller.

Here’s a passage:

In the early stage of my career, I began outlining every television play or motion picture or novel I had seen. In the outlines, I would try to analyze what caught my interest, why I identified with a certain person, why that person became important to me, what needs kept me intrigued, how the story built to a climax, and so on. While doing this, I continued to write my thousand words a day… and more of it crap than I care to remember. One day, some of it began to come together, and I found myself becoming able to read my own work and criticize it as if it were someone else’s.

I share this because Mr. Roddenberry has a point. That’s why we keep his wise words posted to the wall.

The Billy Wilder Reading Room reminds me of a high school dissection lab. Except here, people aren’t cutting into rats or cats, they’re dissecting scripts. They’re hunched over our Grant Tinker / MTM Writers’ Room Table reading everything from Casablanca to episodes of Atlanta, trying to catch a glimpse of the inner workings, trying to figure out what makes it tick, trying to find inspiration.

To know how to create a blueprint for what will become a movie or TV show, a screenwriter must become intimately familiar with such blueprints. A screenwriter must study scripts.

And just like there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s, there’s not really a wrong way to study a script. There are, however, a few practices you can abide by to respect the work of fellow writers, to respect the integrity of the profession and to really ensure that you gain something from the experience. When you find yourself lucky enough to get your hands on a script that speaks to you (either in our library or someplace else), here are a few tips to help you get the most out of it.

1. FOCUS ON YOUR FEELINGS RATHER THAN OBSESSING OVER FORMAT

When you sit down with a script, focus on how the writer uses words and technique to make you experience the full range of emotions in the story along with the character. Why do you feel for the protagonist or another character? What is the writer doing to make you feel that way? How does the writer construct the character’s arc, step by step? How does the writer evoke a sense of atmosphere and movement with limited words? How does the writer ramp up tension to keep you fascinated as you read? What’s the obligatory scene in the movie or the emotional promise of the show that keeps you turning the page?

In the library, I sometimes notice that patrons who are writing spec scripts for certain series feel the urgent need to read the most recent season or look at scripts for very specific episodes. They feel they must emulate the format, style and wording to a T for their spec to be deemed successful. My advice is: Don’t fret so much about crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s. Remember to focus on how the writing of the show makes you feel (giving attention to structure and tone). You can get all the information you need from actually sitting down and watching the show and taking notes. Having access to the scripts then becomes a great bonus to get your spec looking and sounding as true to the original as possible. Your objective, above all else, should be to tell the kind of story that they tell on that series—and to tell it so well, readers feel the same way they feel when they watch the show. Your feelings (and how the writer elicits them) are the most important things to extrapolate.

2. TAKE NOTES BY HAND

Bring a notebook and pen to the library or to your couch when you sit down to watch something. When you write by hand, you slow down and retain more information. Taking notes by hand also ensures that you’re in your own thoughts rather than copying someone else’s. You’re paying attention to your gut and jotting down what grabs your attention and why.

It might sound obvious, but it needs to be said: Copying is detrimental to the craft of writing. The age-old adage is true: Immature artists copy while mature artists steal. Most of us aren’t even cognizant of doing it. When an amazing writer hands us a perfect line of action or character description, we’re sometimes apt to use the exact same words in our own scripts. Earlier in the year, I wrote a blog post about how a lack of original word choice can perpetuate cliches, stereotypes and harmful behaviors in the wider entertainment industry. Using someone else’s exact words dumbs writing down to the point that lots of scripts can start to feel very similar to each other. Your own words are valuable in that they are unique. Use them.

Type when you’re writing your own script. Write by hand when you’re taking notes on somebody else’s. In fact, write by hand as often as you can. It just encourages more thoughtfulness.

3. ATTRIBUTE! ATTRIBUTE! ATTRIBUTE!

Recently, there’s been a surge in online articles that focus on descriptions in screen and teleplays. If you’re going to quote someone else’s (by the way, unpublished) work for the fair purpose of critique, the absolute least you can do is credit the writer. This is like copying the text of a tweet rather than just re-tweeting it. Failing to acknowledge the author, completely disrespects the original thought as well as the very hard work of the person who wrote it.

Even if you don’t mean to, it seems like you’re trying to pass the thought off as your own. While this sort of behavior is rampant in our all-access, online culture, you’d hate it if somebody did this to you. It lessens the very value of thoughts and ideas. Historian Danielle McGuire puts it in better terms than I ever could in this great article for the Columbia Journalism Review.

4. DON’T EVER STOP READING AND DON’T BE AFRAID TO READ OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE

Read a ton. Don’t ever stop reading. The more you read, the more stories, styles and information will have an impact on you. Read scripts outside your wheelhouse and aspirations. Your genre of choice might be romantic comedy, but you can still become better at writing description by reading the Alien screenplay. Your style might be more atmosphere or action-oriented. That doesn’t mean you can’t strengthen your understanding of dialogue by reading screwball comedies or The West Wing. If you regularly read all sorts of scripts, you’ll have more tactics to draw on when you sit down to write and, as a result, you’ll have a richer voice.

5. IF YOU’RE SUCCESSFUL, SHARE

Remember that writers learn from reading and if you’re in the enviable position of having written a film or TV show that has an effect on people, share what you know. A very simple way to give mentorship to aspiring writers is, of course, to provide access to your scripts by donating them to a script library. (Wink wink.)

And if you’re eager to see the rest of Gene Roddenberry’s thoughts on writing, come visit the WGF script library sometime soon.

 

 

Super Bowl Script Cavalcade: The Wonder Years

On the surface, the Super Bowl might seem to be about football and over-the-top commercials, but anyone who’s anyone knows that it’s really about the episode of television that airs immediately following the game. TV networks have historically used the massive viewership that accompanies the most-watched event of the year in order to cultivate a greater audience for one of their new or currently running shows. This is the cultural phenomenon known as the “Super Bowl Lead-Out Program.”  

This time slot has seen everything from Lassie after the very first Super Bowl in 1967 to Julia Roberts guest-starring on Friends to a man with an active bomb stuck in his body on Grey’s Anatomy to what’s sure to be a heart-palpitation-inducing episode of This Is Us immediately after the New England Patriots take on the Philadelphia Eagles this Sunday.  

Studying scripts from past post-Super Bowl lead-out episodes can be a particularly illuminating experience for writers. Such scripts are littered with tactics for hooking viewers—viewers whose senses have probably been dulled by too many flashy commercials or perhaps by too much beer.

For the past 25 years or so, the trend among networks has been to air a special, high-budget episode of an already wildly successful show, but this hasn’t always been the case. From the mid 1980s to the mid 90s, networks hoped to jump-start the audience for new shows by airing pilots after the super bowl. This tactic didn’t work especially well as many of these series were cancelled sometimes within weeks of their initial debut.  

On many counts, one of the most successful pilots to air after the Super Bowl was the pilot for The Wonder Years, which premiered on ABC immediately after Super Bowl XXII in 1988, exactly thirty years ago this year.  

Written by Neal Marlens & Carol Black (The team behind Growing Pains and Ellen), the pilot for The Wonder Years has little in common with the huge guest stars or heart-rending plot machinations of post-Super Bowl TV episodes in more recent years. Rather, it’s subtle and uses nostalgia to look at the everyday upbringing of its 12-year-old protagonist. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like the type of program that people would double over in desperation to tune into, yet in its debut and in subsequent seasons, The Wonder Years managed to accrue a passionate and dedicated viewer base.

The question is: how does a small, sentimental show without obvious high stakes or attention-grabbing trappings come to garner such a loyal following and become known as a television classic?

The pilot script opens, as nearly every episode of the show does, with an adult man named Kevin Arnold looking back on his adolescence in the 1960s.

Notice how one of the first scenes is a group of kids playing football in the street.

In 1988, this is the perfect sentiment to evoke amongst people watching the biggest football game of the year because they might be watching it with family and/or friends and reminiscingPart of how The Wonder Years draws people in is by crafting a deeply personal narrative around themes and experiences that everybody has dealt with to a certain extent.

It tells stories about family and misunderstandings between parents and their kids:

It deals with friendship in a really warm and empathetic way:

It deals with first love:

The show even deals also death. In fact, none of the aforementioned topics go un-broached even in the pilot script.  

By 1988, the boomer generation was mostly grown up and probably living in suburbia with children of their own. Most of them probably tuned into the Super Bowl that year. The Wonder Years attempts to speak directly to them by telling stories about events they would have very acute, personal memories of, such as the war in Vietnam or MLK Jr. and JFK’s assassinations. By writing specifically about these things, the writers fashion a show that people can feel belongs to them. They take this feeling of personalization one step further by wrapping their stories in the music of the time period. Nothing can “take a person back” like hearing songs from a certain era, so the feeling of nostalgia is multiplied many times over by including popular songs from the ’60s. 

Literary wisdom tells us that “the personal is universal.” By delving down into the specifics of what it was like to grow-up during the 1960s, the writers here create a story that feels poignant for anybody who’s ever grown-up. That’s their hook. That’s why their show matters to so many people.

Maybe the pilot for The Wonder Years is an exception and not the rule when it comes to Post-Super Bowl Lead-Out programming, but it deserves to be a case study in how it allows anybody regardless of the circumstances or time period of their upbringing to be able to look back on their youth from a distance and imbue certain people and events with deeper meaning and understanding. Isn’t that what storytelling is all about?

If you want to study-up on Post-Super Bowl Lead-Out episodes, get your fix in the WGF Library’s collections. We have the following: 

  • The A*Team’s “Children of Jamestown” – Written by Stephen J. Cannnell, which aired in 1983 after Super Bowl XVII 
  • The pilot episode “Gone for Goode” from Homicide: Life on the Street – Written by Paul Attanasio, which aired in 1993 after Super Bowl XXVII 
  • Friends’ “The One After the Superbowl,” (Pt. 1 Written by Jeffrey Astrof & Mike Sikowitz; Pt. 2 – Written by Michael Borkow), which aired in 1996 after Super Bowl XXX 
  • The X Files’ “Leonard Betts” – Written by Vince Gilligan & John Shiban & Frank Spotnitz, which aired in 1997 after Super Bowl XXXI 
  • The pilot for Family Guy – Written by Seth MacFarlane, which aired in 1999 after Super Bowl XXXIII 
  • Malcolm in the Middle’s “Company Picnic” – Teleplay by Al Higgins, which aired in 2002 after Super Bowl XXXVI 
  • Grey’s Anatomy’s “It’s the End of the World,” which aired in 2006 after Super Bowl XL (and it’s equally incredible follow-up episode “As We Know It” which aired a few days later, both written by Shonda Rhimes)
  • House’s “Frozen” – Written by Liz Friedman, which aired in 2008 after Super Bowl XLII. 
  • Elementary’s “The Deductionist” – Written by Craig Sweeny & Robert Doherty, which aired in 2013 after Super Bowl XLVII

As always, continue to search our library catalog for all your script reading needs.

In Place of Beautiful – Thoughts on Introducing Female Characters

Writers, we have a problem.

The problem is “beautiful,” “pretty,” “attractive,” “cute”… and a few other adjectives of similar meaning.

The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to find a screenplay or pilot script that doesn’t introduce its female characters using one of these words.

I work in a script library. Once a patron pointed this out to me, it’s a phenomenon I can’t seem to un-see. From the greenest of beginners to the most seasoned Emmy and Oscar winners; from the very beginning of cinema to TV episodes that aired last week, it’s like we can’t write a character who identifies as female without including the qualifier that she’s good-looking. Then, some of us think we’ll get bonus points if we specify that she doesn’t realize she’s good-looking.

This cliché has been the norm for so long that many of us are apt to not even notice. (By the way, this includes many women writers and it includes me.)

Screenwriting is predicated on economy of language. Because words in scripts are used more sparingly, the ones that make it to the page really count.

Think of all the critical creative decisions on a film or TV show, i.e. who the casting department seeks out for the role, how the actor interprets the role, how the character is received, how we’re influenced by the story, etc. that all take root in the lean selection of words put forth by the writer.

As age-old Hollywood wisdom tells us, it starts on the page.

And yet, despite knowing the importance of our word selection, when it comes to our female characters, we continue to use the same careless, generic, appearance-related adjectives—words used so frequently and without purpose that they start to lose all meaning.

Aren’t we aware enough to realize that using these flimsy words in a perpetual cycle is the very genesis of how we start to limit women’s participation not only in the stories we tell, but more so in the industry that supports the telling of those stories?

Beautiful, pretty, attractive, cute…

When we resort to including these words in something as pivotal as a character’s introduction, we reinforce the idea that a character’s other qualities are only worth noticing so long as she’s physically attractive. We give the impression that we couldn’t be bothered to dig up a more specific word so therefore the role must be inconsequential.

When used, “beautiful, pretty, attractive, cute…” tell us that it’s in the woman’s very nature to be an object of desire—even if she’s a hugely active character, even if she’s the hero and even if it’s a story primarily about women.

By contrast, male characters’ physical appearances seem to be described less in such stock terminology. Leaving out generic descriptions of how they look enables us to see them as more unique and perhaps more autonomous.

Could it be that some of the threatening, diminishing conduct towards women in this industry (such as that which has been brought into greater light recently) actually begins in the language we include in our scripts?

If this is true—if harmful, negative behavior can begin in our words—then the change that so many of us seek can also begin in our words. Simply put, altering the narrative can literally start on the page.

As writers of all gender identities, races, religions, creeds and stripes, we get to strike the match that ignites the fire, and it can be through actions as small as re-thinking how we describe our characters.

Oh, dear writers, script readers and anyone who makes movies or TV who just happens to be reading this, I’m giving you a New Year’s Resolution. Any time you come across a description in a script that reads like this…

Or this….

… whether it exists in a friend’s, client’s or, most importantly, your own work… try to see empty words like “beautiful,” “pretty,” “attractive” and “cute” as the blank spaces they are, then make a mental Mad Lib for yourself. Create a space that’s waiting for you as the writer, collaborator or giver of feedback to fill it with something alive, unique and purposeful. I suspect many actors have used this technique for a long time.

Stumped about what words to put in that blank space? Here are a few ideas to jump-start your imagination.

  • First and least creatively, google some thesaurus terms. Words like “alluring,” “magnetic,” even “lovely” sound marginally more thoughtful and specific than the standard “pretty” or “attractive” even if they do allude entirely to how the character looks.

  • It’s easier to write with specificity when you’re thinking of a real person as you go along. Whether you’re picturing the actor who will play this character or a person the character is inspired by, you’re more likely to focus on things like mannerisms and behaviors rather than resorting to generalizations or stereotypes. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous in the library. He imbues every character with a kind of warmth and individuality.

  • Just leave it blank. If it’s a good script, you won’t have to go into detail describing what the character looks like because what we need to know about them will come through in what they do. The pilot scripts for Insecure, Girls and Jane the Virgin describe their leading ladies minimally without ever referencing their physical appearance.

  • Tell us the character’s occupation instead. This takes focus away from what the character looks like and puts it on what the character does.

  • In instances of the dreaded, “beautiful but doesn’t know it” or “broken, but beautiful” type of introduction, think of the kind of person this character becomes by the very end of the script. What has she discovered about herself that she didn’t know before? What kind of person has she become? How has she changed? If you have trouble with this, think of some of the great female character arcs in movies and TV from Thelma of Thelma & Louise to Betty of Ugly Betty to Katherine of Hidden Figures to Daenarys of Game of Thrones. In what way do they become different over the course of the story? Those are the words to use in place of beautiful.

If you’re still worried that you’re falling into the use of an annoying cliché or that you might be perpetuating the omnipresent stereotypical or overused narrative with your descriptions, ask somebody to give you feedback on them.

… and if you don’t have anybody to give you this kind of feedback, feel free to bring your character descriptions to the WGF Library. This script librarian would be happy to give you slightly objective perspective on your character intros.

I’ll keep calling attention to this issue until empty words like beautiful, pretty, attractive and cute are replaced with a slew of dynamic adjectives and nouns and we feel empowered to become each and every one of them.

I’ll soon be back to my regular posts on cool scripts to read in the library. Now and always, keep writing!

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: The Last Detail

While thinking about Veteran’s Day and stories about military life, I want to use this week’s Script Cavalcade to talk about one of my favorite, distinctly character-driven screenplays. Adapted by Robert Towne from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, The Last Detail tells the story of two Navy lifers assigned to transport a cherubic younger shipman from a base in Norfolk, Virginia to a prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The younger sailor, Larry Meadows, has been sentenced to eight years in the brig for the crime of attempting to steal forty dollars from a commanding officer’s wife’s charity box. The two petty officers, Buddusky and Mulhall, have a simple initial plan—get the kid to the pen in two days, then spend the rest of the week having fun with their per diem.

Their plans change slightly when something unexpected happens. Buddusky and Mulhall start to feel for and take a liking to their prisoner, making a point to use their limited time to help him experience everything he’ll miss out on while locked up. This road movie offers insight into America’s state of mind during the 1960s and ’70s. As the story progresses, Mulhall and Buddusky grow a conscience, slowly recognizing the absurdity of an eight-year prison sentence for such a meager crime. Still, they scrappily carry out their orders. In its own quiet and personal way, the script seems to reflect the country’s feelings of helplessness around events like Watergate and Vietnam—all of it giving way to the notion that maybe we’re all longing to escape and find freedom from the day-to-day prisons of our own making. These are big ideas and questions for a movie about three sailors shooting the breeze and going on small detours as they hop buses and trains through the Mid-Atlantic.

Robert Towne, perhaps best known for writing Chinatown, here delivers another tour-de-force script, but in this adaptation the dramatic punches are delivered through the subtle uncovering of the characters’ pain and humanity.

In this blogger’s opinion, the script for The Last Detail is just as essential a work to study as Chinatown. The screenplay offers pointed instruction on how to reveal character on the page in a way that elicits curiosity and empathy; it offers insight into how to craft sharp and meaningful character interactions and, perhaps most importantly, how to build a compelling character arc in an everyday, real-world kind of story.

The plot isn’t hinged on slaying a dragon or stopping a madman from causing destruction. There’s no major secret to uncover—no nefarious business man who impregnated his daughter—just a kid to drop off who’s awaiting punishment for a petty crime.

As the prison-type destination looms closer, questions arise. Will Buddusky and Mulhall get Meadows to Portsmouth on time, or will they somehow screw it up? Or will they choose to abandon their detail and let him go free? These questions give rise to drama and keep us engaged in the story. Every element of the script is made just a bit more poignant with the knowledge that these are Meadows’ last few days as a free man for a long time. It makes the other two sailors internally question the last time they were truly free.

As the sailors continue along down the road, sucking the nectar from the week, they get to know each other. This is the beauty of putting three disparate characters on a journey together. The script sets Buddusky and Mulhall up as chasers and mean bastards, getting us to make assumptions about them by giving them nicknames—Badass and Mule— assumptions that will be satisfyingly shattered by the script’s conclusion.

The script also makes it a point to set Meadows up as a criminal, but then shows us that he’s merely a naïve kid, who probably doesn’t deserve such a harsh sentence for a minor offense. These are good lessons in how to use names, hearsay from other characters and even uniforms to build up a persona and gradually chip away at it until we see the truth that’s underneath. And honestly, what’s more compelling than that when reading a script or watching a film?

Towne ensures that his scenes pop by giving his sailors contrasting personalities and different ways of handling situations. In navigating to Portsmouth, Buddusky is a troublemaker and button-pusher, giving Mulhall the task of constantly having to play defense and rein him in. Similarly, Buddusky is always trying to provoke and entertain the shy and contained Meadows. Automatically, the scenes are bubbling with playable conflict that deftly and discreetly moves the story forward while also giving the actors much to sink their teeth into. It’s very interesting to chart Meadows character arc from frightened kid to attempting to be more belligerent and manly like Buddusky.

Notice that no expletive goes unspoken. Towne makes sure these sailors talk like sailors, citing in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind that people resort to cursing when they feel powerless.

Most screenwriting wisdom compels us to create heroes and heroines who stand up for what they believe in no matter how gut-wrenching the personal cost to them. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons from The Last Detail is that it can be just as wrenching a dramatic choice to have a character know or feel they ought to stand up or do something, but then not do it, perhaps choosing their professional, personal or societal obligations over what their heart or conscience tells them is right. If we’re being honest, that’s the choice most of us would probably make anyway.

What we’re left with, then, like Buddusky and Mulhall, is an aching sense of regret, a sensation familiar to anybody who’s ever lived a life.

Why write or make a movie if not to elicit such a universal feeling?

If you want to learn more about Robert Towne, watch our Writer Speaks Oral History interview with him here. It’s also currently playing on the monitors outside the library.

Find out more about the Writer’s Guild Foundations Veterans Writing Project and how you can support it right here.

If it’s military stories you’re interested in, check out the WGF Library catalog. We have everything from Platoon to Hacksaw Ridge to scripts from CBS’s recent hit Seal Team.

Halloween Script Cavalcade: The Munsters

The following anecdote is from a development / pitch document for The Munsters (1964):

In honor of Halloween, I’m here to make a different kind of pitch for The Munsters. The WGF Archive recently processed a bounty of scripts and materials relating to the zany, ghoulish family. Most of this collection hails from Norm Liebmann who is credited with developing the show alongside his writing partner Ed Haas and creators Allan Burns & Chris Hayward. The Munsters collection is expansive and features many useful highlights like the aforementioned pitch document—items that will appeal to writers of all stripes as well as TV history fans and scholars.

Newspaper clippings from the collection tell us that The Munsters premiered on CBS the very same week in September as another show about a strange, macabre family living in a large and ominous house at the end of a suburban, neighborhood street. That other show was, of course, The Addams Family, which premiered on ABC. As it happens, Bewitched also made its series premiere that same fateful week. It might seem strange or coincidental for three shows of similar ilk and like themes to hit television airwaves within mere days of each other.

David Levy, creator of the TV Addams Family, didn’t seem to think so. In a Los Angeles Times article dated August 11th, 1964, Levy, a former head of programming at NBC, states that:

Ideas float like confetti over Madison Ave. and it is not surprising that when the time is right for a particular type of show that two networks might decide to go with it.

The 1960s in America became a time of counterculture and unprecedented pushes for civil rights. We can see this reflected in shows about unconventional families trying to assimilate with “normal” people in the suburbs. Indeed, the Munsters, the Addams, or Samantha Stephens become stand-ins for any group of people who might feel marginalized or on the outs in American society or family life, calling ideas of normalcy and conformity into question and possibly making an argument for wider acceptance.

In addition to commentary, the idea of monsters or a slightly off-beat, deathy family trying to interact with or fit in with regular folks produces a lot of comedy.

Shows like The Munsters gain legs on the strength of their concepts. What makes the WGF Archives’ Munsters collection so informative is that those who mine it for information and inspiration can see how a show evolves from mere idea to full-fledged television program—how it moves from a successful pitch to a TV microcosm that fans are able to relate to and take part in.

Munsters Concept Illustration, Norman Liebmann Collection, Writers Guild Foundation Archive

Liebmann & Haas put the concept across in such a cogent way on paper that one visualizes the series and how it will work on screen from week to week. Furthermore, most of the episodes from the show’s two-season run, are available as outlines, step outlines, rough drafts and final drafts so one can trace the full process of an episode’s writing. This kind of information can be helpful even to writers working in today’s current streaming atmosphere.

It’s particularly fascinating to examine the evolution of certain jokes within an episode. Having written for such late night and variety show luminaries as Johnny Carson and Jerry Lewis, Liebmann & Haas are quintessential joke masters with endless ideas brought forth onto the page and even more refinements. (See my earlier blog post about Liebmann’s contributions to The Roast of Bette Davis here).

No part of the writing and show-creating process is spared from this collection. In addition to scripts, there’s correspondence and notes from the show’s other writer/producers Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher who, prior to joining The Munsters, produced Amos ‘n Andy and Leave It to Beaver. Because Universal Studios produced The Munsters, the show had almost unfettered access to Universal’s most well-known scary creatures. This is the reason the show was able to include characters like Herman molded on Frankenstein or Grandpa molded on Dracula. In fact, the recognizability of such characters is a likely part of the show’s appeal.

Munsters Promotional Material, Norman Liebmann Collection, Writers Guild Foundation Archive

Norm Liebmann took great care to save most of his writing-related documents. The Munsters materials shine a light on everything from how the writers negotiated their contracts to how early Fred Gwynne had to be in his make-up chair every day on set. There’s even fun paraphernalia from the show’s fan clubs like this membership card from the The Jeepers Keepers Fan Club.

Norman Liebmann Collection, Writers Guild Foundation Library

It’s an ideal collection for anyone looking to gain a greater understanding of a classic sitcom’s evolution from script to screen. For more information on this collection and others available in the WGF Archive, please visit our website.

And if you’re looking for other spooky fair to get you in the mood for Halloween, try checking out some scripts from the library’s collection of features. We recommend:

  • John Carpenter‘s script for Halloween
  • Hocus Pocus written by Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert
  • Charles Schultz‘s dialogue script for It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: La Bamba

This week on Script Cavalcade, we’re plumbing the mythological subsurface of Luis Valdez’s La Bamba (1988). The rollicking musical biopic celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with a handful of different screenings around LA and beyond. Writerly fans of La Bamba will be pleased to know that the WGF Library has two drafts of the screenplay in its collection – and one of them is signed with encouragement by the maestro himself.

The film tells the story of early, pioneering rocker Ritchie Valens of Pacoima, California, who died at 17 in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, but not before changing the face of American popular music by adapting a traditional Mexican folk song “La Bamba” into one of the most enduring rock hits of all time. A one-time migrant farmworker, Valens (whose birth name was Richard Valenzuelas) is a fantastic example of Mexican-descended influence on roots music and early rock ‘n roll. By telling Valens’ story, Valdez reveals an under-explored aspect of music culture, creating a folk icon for everyone, but especially for those who don’t get nearly as many opportunities to see themselves presented as nuanced heroes of their own big-screen narratives.

Luis Valdez, known widely as the “Father of Chicano Theater,” isn’t so much a screenwriter or playwright as he is a mythmaker. When we think of mythology, we often think of deeply traditional narratives and sacred stories that seek to explain the origin of the world, death and human nature. Such stories are often about Gods, heroes, animals or personifications of natural elements like mountains and sky. Valdez’s gift as a writer is his ability to make commentary on everyday life and the present-day social order by spinning it into myth. By reaching for the mythic underpinnings in his stories, Valdez elevates his narratives to the highest level of storytelling. That’s why his writing feels universal and endures.

This week, I present you with one simple scene. In La Bamba, like any great hero, Ritchie must look inward and connect with his roots to discover his power and his identity. In this case, Ritchie finds himself waking up hungover in Tijuana with a bizarre, old medicine man. The drama is laden with symbolism and has a kind of ancient subtext eking out of its pores. These are ideal study pages for writers looking to unearth the macro/mythic/universal-level themes in their personal stories. It’s motivation for all of us to study and connect with our own ancestry and culture – wherever it might originate — in order to draw from it in our work.

As a writer, seeing things on a mythological or cosmogonic level involves stripping away modern formality. In contemporary society, we often define ourselves by our professions, i.e. – “I’m an attorney;” “I’m a football player;” “I’m a sales technician,” etc. Writing at the mythic level involves looking beyond certain contemporary social constructions like one’s job title. Many ancient peoples believed that individuals had specific destinies—to become warriors, healers, wanderers, teachers or storytellers and that it was an individual’s job to realize one’s destiny and to journey to become it. If we look at life as though it is a myth and we view our own experience as though we’re heroes and heroines on a journey to discover who we are, we find certain universal rites of passage and we encounter people who initiate, instruct and heal us in different ways. If there don’t appear to be healers and shamans in modern society, it’s only because we’re not looking hard enough. The best writers—like Valdez—are not only able to see them, they’re able to reveal them in their writing.

Knowing that his lead character dies in a plane crash, Valdez is able to shape his script with the benefit of hindsight. He shows us Ritchie’s continual nightmares about his own death. By including a scene where Ritchie encounters a Curandero, or healer, who seems able to see into his soul and his fate, the writer makes a comment on existence in general, that it’s bigger than we could possibly understand and that death is an innate part of it, but also that death is a portal into something much, much larger and more infinite. This is more than just a musical biopic; it’s writing that makes us feel less alone and afraid because it taps into timeless aspects of personhood that affect every single human.

These are just a few things for you to contemplate the next time you sit down at your laptop.

If you’re looking for more scriptly wisdom to be inspired by, check out some of the library’s newest acquisitions.

  • Black Mirror’s Emmy-Winning “San Junipero” written by Charlie Brooker.
  • The Florida Project written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch.
  • The Glass Castle written by Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls.
  • Scripts from 2008’s TNT series Leverage, seasons 1 and 2.
  • The entire 1st season of NBC’s Marlon.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Bed, Bath and Beyond

Will & Grace is I Love Lucy… if Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz just happened to be queer. It’s a genius variation on the traditional sitcom that, in its day, helped to broaden the types of people and friendships that could be depicted on the small screen. Despite its sometimes exaggerated characterizations and decidedly un-PC humor, Will & Grace helped to make gay culture more visible and accessible to contemporary America. And let’s face it, it did so by making us belly laugh.

Deep, gut-based cackling is ultimately the point of the situation comedy, or “sitcom,” which I will go ahead and define as:

a series in which a fixed set of characters find themselves in a new comedic situation during each individual episode.

Because the format requires a consistent set of characters to get into shenanigans week after week, it’s no surprise that many sitcoms are about families. Of all the sitcoms to revive for our current times, Will & Grace seems, in my mind, a great choice. This is because, in addition to all the laughter, it helps to remind us of the types of chosen and non-nuclear families and support systems that can be found out in the world.

The WGF Library has almost the entire original run of Will & Grace scripts. I’m writing this blog post because – revival aside – the show provides an ideal study for writers looking to understand the mechanics of sitcom writing, especially the kind with one foot in tradition and one foot in attempting to push the format further socially. They’re scripts that offer basic instruction to those who read them on how to mix belly laughs with sweetness and feeling.

Let’s dive in to a script from the fourth season of the show called “Bed, Bath and Beyond.” Written by Jhoni Marchinko, this episode aired November 8, 2001, a time when America found itself turning to sitcoms for comfort in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Like a good gift, the best television episodes often come in the most plain and simple of packaging. “Bed, Bath and Beyond” and other episodes of its ilk are fantastic for reading because they utilize no guest stars. The story is also confined to just the main location of the series (in this case, that’s Will and Grace’s apartment). If you’re a writer trying to churn out a spec script for a sitcom, these will often be the tools or basic elements at your disposal.

In its 38 pages, this script tells the story of how—after expecting a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Nathan, but instead getting dumped—Grace is so full of misery and self-pity that she refuses to get out of bed. Beginning to worry, Will tries everything he can to get Grace up and moving and back out into the world.

That’s it. There’s one situation and one clean line of action to resolve it. The comedy in the episode comes particularly from Jack and Karen’s inability to help Will achieve this task in a helpful and sensitive way. Bedridden and sad, Grace plays “the straight woman” to their outrageous antics.

Watch how Jack tries to cheer Grace up by singing a medley of songs…

…but he only makes her feel worse.

Watch how Karen resorts to demanding help from Rosario…

When Rosario gets into the bedroom with Grace, she’s forced to play the straight woman as Grace inundates her with slides from her childhood, trying to determine where it all went wrong and delivering this tour de force monologue:

Running out of options, the gang eventually resorts to tossing Grace into the shower to “wash that man right out of her hair” but she counters by slipping out of their grip and telling them that she’s just not ready, that she must allow herself to be sad in her own way before she can feel better. In doing this, she tells each of them that she’s just not as strong as they are, inadvertently reminding each of them of the things in their lives that they could be heartbroken about.

She bums them out until they feel like going to bed and never getting up.

One of the final images—Will, Grace, Jack and Karen all lying in bed together—gives rise to the ultimate lesson of the episode. Crises and periods of woe are easier to bear when you have friends and family who understand what you’re going through and stand by you.

In polarizing and challenging times, this is the heart of the story that rears its head underneath the laughter. It’s a message that resonates.

While you’re at the library reading up on Will & Grace, be sure to check out some new additions to the collection, including:

  • A handful of scripts from The Bold Type created by Sarah Watson
  • Scripts from The Carol Burnett Show from the recently acquired Arnie Kogen collection
  • Scripts from 1996’s Early Edition created by Ian Abrams, Bob Brush & Patrick Q. Page
  • The feature screenplay for Logan Lucky Written by Rebecca Blunt.

For more scripts, please search our ever-expanding library catalog and follow the Writers Guild Foundation on Twitter.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: St. Elsewhere’s The Women

I don’t know about you, but I find the culmination of Emmy season to be a time of great reflection. When yearly TV accolades are handed out, I can’t help ruminating on all the best shows and episodes I’ve witnessed in my life and on everything I love about the medium.

For me, the best TV does a handful of things:

  • It follows the recipe for its genre or format, but adds new and emotionally challenging ingredients to give us an experience that’s recognizable and relatable, but ALSO surprising and cathartic.
  • It revels in characters and their flaws.
  • It finds unexpected humor and poignancy in tragic situations.
  • It is often about disparate people coming together as a community, family or team.
  • It feels like the best theater.

One show that tends to exemplify all these things is St. Elsewhere.

Today, we don’t think twice about equivocating television series to other storytelling mediums like literature or theater, but TV hasn’t always been held in such high esteem. In the 1980s, shows like St. Elsewhere and its predecessor by one season, Hill Street Blues, (both airing on NBC and produced by MTM Enterprises) helped to lift the television drama—and especially the television procedural—to a new level of artistry and credibility.

During its seven-year run, St. Elsewhere became known for its mold-breaking episodes that challenged its own pre-existing promise and structure. Thanks to a generous script donation from Ed Begley, Jr., who played Dr. Ehrlich on the show, the library has many of these scripts in its collection.

My recommended reading for this week is an episode from St. Elsewhere’s second season, entitled “The Women.” It won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series in 1984. I’m recommending it not simply because it won an Emmy but because it’s a great study episode for writers, packing tightly into one 60-page script all of my aforementioned tenets that make for great television.

Written by renowned playwright John Ford Noonan with a story by John Masius & Tom Fontana, “The Women” feels like a free-standing play within a series. The main characters in the episode are three female patients, all different ages and in the hospital for different reasons, sharing the same room. Over the course of the story, they bond, making their own micro community and helping each other to heal.

The episode is innovative in how it’s the guest actors who take the front seat, never to be seen again after this one episode, while the series regulars—the doctors—fill the supporting roles. Read how one of the patients, the 80-year-old Evelyn, interacts with Doctors Westphall and Craig:

Naturally, reading any produced television script can help a writer to hone their taste, preferences and ability to distinguish great writing from not-so-great writing (even though it’s all very subjective). If you’re like me and taking the time to reflect at the end of this Emmy season, why not stop by the library to read scripts from nominated shows?

We have everything from The Handmaid’s Tale to Atlanta to The Crown to that delightful “Thanksgiving” episode from Master of None. But while you’re reading those, why not also pick up scripts from classic Emmy award winners like St. Elsewhere, which can be seen in many ways as an influence on today’s contemporary shows?

Whatever your taste might be, you can always find both classic and contemporary series by searching our library catalog and stopping by for a visit.

And if I’ve piqued your interest about St. Elsewhere, you can also watch our Writer Speaks oral history interview with one half of its creators, Josh Brand, conducted with The Archive of American Television.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Adam’s Rib

Lauren Bacall gives Humphrey Bogart some side eye and he grins. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan argue about orgasms at Katz’s deli. Yammering Paul Newman talks a mostly silent Robert Redford’s ear off in the wild west in the late 1800s. Basically, two characters come together as partners on screen and if we’re lucky, their interactions and friction produce this happy spellbinding effect.

We call it chemistry, but often in the business of creating movies and television we treat it like it’s magic… as if it’s elusive and very difficult to conjure and we shouldn’t talk about it too loudly because we don’t want to squelch the enchantment.

Here’s a question for you.

What if we treated chemistry as what it is?

That is to say, a science.

The physical science of chemistry focuses on the properties and change of matter. Two substances are put together to create a chemical reaction. Their interaction transforms them together into a new substance.

Chemists create and study new substances by following a written formula, i.e. two hydrogen atoms put together with one oxygen atom create water (H2O).

What if we looked at screenwriters as chemists whose job it is to experiment and lay out a formula for the director to follow with actors?

People often define acting as reacting, which hints at its chemical nature. With a proper formula, actors—like elements—can come together to create a new and thrilling substance.

Just as there are endless ways to combine elements on the periodic table for a reaction, there are endless ways to combine different characters.

Professions, genders, races, classes, attitudes, ages, places of origin, abilities, modes of speaking—the list goes on and on. If you put together people who reside on opposite ends of any kind of spectrum, odds are they’ll complement each other in some way to create a satisfying kind of traction and momentum as they mitigate their differences and transform into something new. Think of one character as hot and one character as cold. When they join forces, they make a balmy breeze that we can’t get enough of… or perhaps they’re carbon and oxygen, combining to make something deadly and destructive, but still captivating to watch.

If you’re studying chemistry, you study the work of Marie Curie, John Dalton or Louis Pasteur. If you’re a screenwriter, you study how Nora Ephron, Spike Lee or William Goldman lay out character and story elements in a formula on the page.

It’s with these ideas in mind that I make my script recommendation this week. I’m excerpting a few pages from 1949’s Adams’s Rib, written by husband-and-wife writing team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, then eventually acted by the ultimate partners in chemistry, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

This is an earlier draft of the script, written before the characters’ names were changed to Adam and Amanda, respectively. In the movie, they’re both lawyers. She’s a well-spoken “We-can-do-it!” kind of woman and he’s a by-the-books, meat and potatoes (or is it po-tah-toes?) kind of guy. As the story goes on, they find themselves as prosecutor and defense attorney for a case in which a woman has attempted to murder her husband. The case draws their principles into direct conflict with one-another.

This is the first scene in which we see the two characters interact. Notice their cross objectives and tactics. They’re both looking for information. She would rather read it in the paper. He would rather get it out of her.

Down to the nuance in the spelling of the characters’ nicknames for each other (Pinky vs. Pinkie), the script for Adam’s Rib proves that chemistry can very much be written before it is played.

You can read more about Adam’s Rib writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin on the last page of the newest addition of the WGA’s Written By Magazine, which features another husband-and-wife writing team Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon of The Big Sick on its cover. If it’s not out at the point of your reading this, it will be soon.

Find great examples of chemistry-oriented writing in The Big Sick script and these other titles at the library on your next visit:

His Girl Friday. Screenplay by Charles Lederer based on the 1928 play The Front Page by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur.

Out of Sight. Screenplay by Scott Frank based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.

Thelma & Louise. Written by Callie Khouri.

You’ve Got Mail. Screenplay by Nora Ephron & Delia Ephron based on the play “Parfumerie” by Nikolaus Laszlo.

And in the meantime, you can always search our catalog. Or perhaps you say catalogue.

 

 

 

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Norma Rae

This week, the WGF convened a panel called Women Warriors: Writing Strong Female Protagonists, which means I got to listen to Amy Berg, Liz Flahive, Allan Heinberg and Moira Walley-Beckett—all of whom have created or added dimension to some of the most commanding female characters in very recent memory—discuss the fictional (and non-fictional) women who have had a profound influence on their writing. They brought up everybody from Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett to Anne of Green Gables, Buffy, The Bionic Woman and Nancy Drew to the women of current TV shows such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Insecure, Fleabag and Catastrophe.

As they conversed about the female characters who’ve inspired them, I began thinking about the female characters who’ve inspired me… and thus I began this blog post about one of my favorite characters of all time.

Her name is Norma Rae Webster. She’s a scrappy, working woman, toiling away in a cotton mill in a nameless town in the American south. The titular character of her own film (Norma Rae, 1979), she grows to become a principled and deeply inspiring hero.

If Summer of 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that we really respond to female heroes. They compel us to stand up, take action and be better people.

As screenwriters, the question then becomes how do we create such heroes?

In my mind, Norma Rae provides a kind of heroism rubric for those writers trying to give any character—female or otherwise—more guts and agency. As we learned in the panel on Wednesday night, it’s characters who get up and TRY in the face of adversity, rather than those who remain passive or those who force themselves into our consciousness.

Norma Rae was written by famous screenwriting husband-and-wife team, Irving Ravetch and Harriett Frank, Jr. Their work is sweat-soaked southern storytelling at its very best. The other film of theirs worth checking out is 1963’s Hud. While Irving has since passed away, Harriett just celebrated her 100th birthday this year. Talk about a woman warrior.

The writing team finds their inspiration in Crystal Lee Sutton of North Carolina, a worker who helped mills to unionize in 1973, losing her job in the process of standing up against unfair wages and treatment of her fellow workers. Norma Rae Webster is a fictionalized version of her. The ultimate underdog heroine, she’s characterized as a promiscuous single mother of two who occasionally takes a backhand from the men she sleeps with, who still lives with her parents and is probably kept down by low self-worth more than she cares to admit. Her whole family works at the mill and has never seen a raise. In fact, it seems like their treatment on the job continues to get worse and worse, and something just no longer sits right with Norma.

What makes Norma a formidable contradiction is her big mouth. While the people she’s surrounded by seem almost sedated into submission, tolerating being worked to the bone, Norma has an almost heightened sense of empathy. She speaks her mind and is an unrelenting bulldog in seeing workplace injustices called out. She’s the textbook definition of a diamond in the rough—a hero waiting to emerge from a so-called riffraff-y veneer.

When a labor organizer named Reuben Warshsawsky, a leftist from New York City, comes to town, he sees the potential in Norma and tries to get her to join him in starting a union at the mill. He’s committed to giving more say to workers and holding the powerful bosses accountable. He’s come down to sell the mill workers on unionizing. However, as a Jewish, liberal intellectual with a big mouth of his own, he does not fit in with the small southern town where he’s been sent. In a sense, he needs Norma to connect with her fellow mill workers, knowing that she can relate and reach them in a way that he cannot.

Reuben and Norma are opposites, whose character traits become more well-defined when they are paired with one another. It’s fantastic to watch his cultural snobbery at odds with her salt-of-the-earth panache. At the end of the day, Reuben helps Norma to realize her moral imperative to help give the mill workers a voice. Once Norma feels empowered, she literally DOESN’T STOP.

It’s all the more stirring to witness as she’s not a hulking prizefighter like Marlon Brando standing up to mob bosses in On the Waterfront… she’s a tiny, little woman. She’s Sally Field.

When Norma begins to stand up, speak out and push back, things don’t get better for her, they get worse. But what ensues is elucidation a-plenty for anybody looking to write a female protagonist who TRIES.

When the sweet husband she’s managed to snag over the course of the story doesn’t approve of all her time being taken up by organizing…

She keeps going, regardless. When she and Reuben aren’t taken seriously by other employees, particularly the male ones…

She persists. When the local church insinuates that what she’s doing might be uncouth, she doesn’t abandon her faith, but she temporarily walks away from the institution until it can come to its senses…

When the corrupted mill management makes things worse for all the employees, doubling down on them due to their organizing, trying to punish them into ceasing, many of the mill hands forcefully tell Norma and Reuben to quit…

… but they don’t. When the labor union itself comes to town and tells Reuben to stop working with Norma because she doesn’t fit with their definition of what a good labor organizer is…

… she doesn’t cower away. She keeps striding toward her objective anyway.

When leadership makes the white workers think the black workers will take over the union if they form it…

… Norma raises her voice and speaks louder. Maybe that last point is worth reiterating again. When leadership makes the white workers think the black workers will take over the union if they form it, Norma raises the volume on her voice and speaks louder, refusing to cease calling out leadership’s scapegoating.

Finally, when management threatens to fire her and have her taken away by the police, Norma hops up on a table and holds up a makeshift sign that reads union, inspiring everybody in the mill to stop working and stand with her. It’s the kind of scene that jerks at the tear ducts the same way that the No Man’s Land scene in Wonder Woman does. Here is a woman who has been told no and stop six million different ways, but she stands up on the pedestal; she charges across the trench anyway. Only here, after her triumphant moment in which she finally gains the unwavering support from her fellow mill workers, Norma isn’t pulled away for photographs or hailed as a hero. Instead, she’s arrested and taken to jail.

Often after we win a little bit in our struggle for justice, there’s something even more menacing and unexpected around the corner that knocks us back a few steps or drags us away.

Here, Norma’s friend and colleague Reuben won’t let her give up on herself, especially at this low point, not when they’ve managed to get this far.

He proves to her that while standing up for what’s right isn’t always a walk in the park, a person doesn’t have to do it alone.

I won’t say what happens next because I think you should come to the WGF Library and read the script, but in the end, for her persistence despite major obstacles, defamation and personal setbacks, Norma gains more than just the camaraderie and protection of a union. By stepping up and being a hero, she gains the knowledge and confidence that she IS a hero. She’s more than just a waste of space or piece of trash. By acting to make a difference, she sets herself free.

2017 has been the year of Wonder Woman, GLOW, handmaids, Anne of Green Gables, cold war spies with impeccable combat skills, soon-to-be-tellings of Billie Jean King whooping Bobby Riggs’ tush and so much more. It’s all nothing short of emboldening and a big step forward.

But it’s also been a year and especially a summer that’s shown us both how necessary and how difficult it can be to stand up to corruption, prejudice and hatred. Standing up can come at a great personal cost. If we push hard enough, it can practically ruin us, but relentless protagonists like Norma Rae prove that we can.

Characters always reflect a bit of ourselves, and it’s worth it to create those we aspire to be.

It starts with the writer.

And if you need a bit of inspiration, you can read this script and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Insecure, The Handmaid’s TaleCatastrophe, GLOW, Wonder Woman, the pilots for Fleabag and The Bionic Woman and many other scripts that we, the library staff, will be thrilled to recommend to you.