Monday, March 16, 2009

Early VS Research

Although my life is currently owned by university, I often let my thoughts wander to the wonderful world of virtual series. I've been writing at MZP for four years now, since I stumbled upon the idea of script writing, and each year I write more and more. In the past week, I've been thinking a lot about research.

This coming summer, I'm set to write a number of VS-related scripts: The Company 3x02 and 3x03, a key episode of Slayer Academy (and more TBC), and my own private projects. So, how am I going about preparing, given my long lead time and lack of actual chances to write?

(Mild spoilers for the above shows beyond this point)

The Company has been dominating my thoughts the most. Episode 3x03, 'The Tomorrow Song', is very much a tale about music and musicians; though I have a deep reverence for musical artists, I myself am not one. In order to make this episode as good as possible, I need to have some understanding of music, of its process, of how it feels to write great music - and to perform it. I expect there's a rush similar to writing, but they are two very different situations. What I've been doing this past week is listening more intently to my iPod, feeling out songs more, and attempting to pen some lyrics of my own to get into the proper headspace. Also, I'm planning on digging into new (for me) music - punk and rock for a guest character, for example. I'm also looking into the views of some creators of music - the blogs of Amanda Palmer and Bear McCreary are the best sources I've stumbled upon, but they've been of great help so far.

Another puzzling issue is how to craft the Slayer Academy episode I'm set to write, which will be an exit for a major character. I want to do this artfully, but pay tribute to the character and their relationship with another important character, possibly playing with format, voiceover, or chronology (some styles I've tried before). Maybe something completely new. Currently brainstorming episodes of shows where important characters exited, to watch when helping Lee construct an outline. Any suggestions? I'm thinking Battlestar Galactica in terms of style, at the moment...

Villainous, my current attempt at a comedy, is a struggle - the first draft was daft and messy, but it was quite amusing; the second draft holds together a lot better, but I'm worried that it lost some of the spontaneous comedy of the original. Going to be checking out a lot of sitcoms to better familiarise myself with the style.

My slowly-gestating miniseries Darken House will require a lot of thought, as I'll essentially be building an entire new civilization based on a set of rules and environmental concerns, as well as using that to flesh out my co-lead Kanna. I plan on finishing Mark Z. Danielewski's 'House of Leaves' in preparation, but there are other pieces of literature and cinema that could help as well.

Also on my thoughts is webisode series Lifeblood; I'm fascinated by it, but I'm starting to feel as if I'll need to do a lot more research before I can do justice to the themes I want to explore. There's a lot about media, psychology and sociology that I want to study here, time constraints willing. I'll need to do some studying on celebrity culture and media stuff like the O.J. trials and Clinton's sex scandal.

I'm sure there's more (there's always more), but that's a glimpse into my current endeavours. Let's see whether I can break through these blocks!

Five Years of MZP

A draft of this was written at MZP, in honour of it's 5-year anniversary move to a new message board. I had more to say, and didn't want to exhaust people, so I'm including the complete version here.

Some thoughts on various writing experiences, and how they and MZP continued my ascent as a writer...

Ian Austin's Lost 2x05: This was my first proper script, and I learned a hell of a lot about scriptwriting in general; act outs, formatting, dialogue. Though this script is a mess to me now, I look back fondly on it; it was my first baby step here. Ian was willing to take a chance on me, mostly because VS Lost was a purely fun project for us, and it gave me a real shot at developing my style.

Lara Croft Genesis 1x03: My first commissioned MZP script was on this (very) troubled script. My first shot at creating an outline and then writing the ensuing script, as well as my first time playing with another VS-er's characters. Infamously got a [b]4[/b] from Xandmatt. That allowed me to grow a slightly thicker skin, which I needed for my first few scripts.

Lara Croft 1x05: A script I never wrote, centring around female villain Sasha Nyte and her backstory. While trying to create a story for an episode idea with basically no substance, I tapped into exploring the relationship between warring villains Sasha Nyte and Werner Von Croy. These flashbacks were instrumental in my later development as a writer; I believe a lot of characters I later helped develop, such as Slayer Academy's Fran St. James and The Company's Diana Cross, started with the germ of the story here. Funny enough, after I turned in the outline for this episode, talk of strengthening the character and spinning her off began; I hope that means the ideas were solid. Still considering whether I'll use this character eventually, perhaps for an MZP movie.

The Grey: The first idea wherein I completed an actual pilot (oddly enough, only after I'd written a draft of 1x03). Again, a real learning experience, as I provoked Michael Jay into angrily deconstructing exactly where I went wrong; thankfully, his advice has stuck with me and helped me with every script since. Also a real ego-booster, as I learned I could not only finish a pilot, but an additional episode, with my own characters.

The Company: I signed on for this show before it was even officially picked up; I read the pilot and PMed SJ within the hour for a position. Since then, the collaboration between SJ, Matt and myself has been one of the most rewarding experiences I've had, writing or otherwise. Thank you SJ and Matt, and thank you MZP. As the show heads into S3, I can't help but remember S1, when we were plotting the beats of this season (many of which are still present) before 1x03 even aired.

The Co-Writes: If you look above, you'll note a lot of co-writes. Suffice to say, I've long had a confidence problem with my writing, as well as speed and creative block issues, that led to me getting halfway through (or even less!) and having to ask another writer to help me out. Others were sometimes me doing the opposite; episodes that needed a helping hand to make it to the finish line. There are the collaborations out of different writer's strengths - for example, SA 3x20, wherein Lee wrote amazing, epic action and I wrote the thematic beats of Sofia/Emma's story - and ones wherein two writers assigned alongside one another stayed largely to their own sides. Then, there's my own shame: Netherworld 1x06, where I was unable to complete the episode and Brian finished it off for me. A humbling experience, as if I'd needed one! Thankfully,t hese days I'm holding down more and more solos, and that looks to continue into 2009 and 2010. MZP has taught me a lot about collaboration and teamwork, especially here, and

The Non-Starters: More humbling than failure over a single script is the failure of an entire project. MZP has, time and time again, been forced to remind me of my own limits, and has allowed me to slowly gain a better understanding of them. I've had shows picked up twice; Lost VS2, which collapsed under my own lack of proper planning and organization (though I spend literal days doing just that) and Hidden Swords, picked up by BVC, which came undone as I realised that having a set of good characters and a rocking seasonal outline do not necessarily mean you know how to pull the series off. Dozens of pitches and other ideas also fit in here, like the above The Grey, a victim of my urge to unfold a mystery but not a series (now, of course, I realise it would have made a much better miniseries).

Night Stalker 1.5x09: Trinity: To be honest, when I took this episode, I doubted I'd enjoy writing it much and merely was looking for experience. But as the story developed, it became a very interesting script to write, delving (more shallowly than I wish I'd taken it now) into questions of morality. One of my best-reviewed scripts, strangely enough, and a truly positive VS memory of mine. I wanna especially thank JJ - I was a bit of a nervous wreck writing this episode in a rush, and he was never anything but supportive an a great guide, even when I myself started to near the edge of sanity. And then the reviews poured in, and they were very positive; probably the best response I'd had to a script barring The Company 1x07. Funnily enough, due to my success with Trinity I thought 2x04 'Bushido' would be enjoyed even more, as I went back to plumb similar thematic ground in more depth, but that episode was almost universally panned. Prediction audience response is hard, until you get the sweet clarity of hindsight to let you see the script's flaws.

Slayer Academy 2x16: Pieces: In my Slayer Academy debut, while Brian took on Barbara's story, I was given much of the side stories - the Rogues and the Academy licking their wounds. This episode allowed me to see how to take small moments and make them powerful; some of my favourite moments I've written are here. It also let me do a musical montage, a device I would continue to use after this, and let me play with subtle foreshadowing with the delightful chance to write Dana.

Slayer Academy 3x13: Okaasan: I must admit, I didn't write much of this co-write with Lee, though I was heavily involved in the development; I was set to write the whole episode until my creative block forced him to step in and save it. But the one major thing I helped contribute was the bizarre Alita's dream opening scene, something that I immensely enjoyed tackling for the chance to work with metaphorical images and characters. This dream sequence influenced those I wrote later, for [b]The Company 2x21: Backstabbing[/b] and [b]Slayer Academy: Fairytale[/b].

Slayer Academy 4x06: Within: This script gave me the fantastic feeling of chipping away at stony characters and coming away finding that [i]something[/i] that makes a character fascinating. Both Fitzgerald and Cassandra were characters introduced into Slayer Academy in their own awkward fashions: Fitz spent a long time in the shadow of Barbara and Stanley, while Cassandra fought for character beats against Braeden, Sofia and Dex. For me personally, I wasn't sure how I felt about either until I penned this piece, which brought them both into stunning clarity.

Slayer Academy 4x19: Spreading the Disease: This episode, my second-ever solo for Slayer Academy, encapsulates both my problems with structure and my constant urge to experiment with it. In this episode, there are three 10-page stories that build on one another rather than running concurrently. I'm still not sure whether the episode is as effective as I'd wished (time constraints in VS make perfection impossible), but I'm still proud of the experimentation I got to try here.

The Company 1x07 and 2x14: Again, returning to my love of experimentation, both cases here allowing me to use secondary characters in great ways. In 1x07, Shane is a co-lead, almost overtaking Vi as the core of the piece; in 2x14, the show looks through a myriad of supporting faces rather than focusing strictly on Ms. Vi Morgan.

The Death Willow Serial (Slayer Academy Webisodes): This serial, the closest I've ever come to successful showrunning, was a fantastic and stressful experience. Lee gave me all the room to breathe I wanted here, and what results is something I'm immensely proud of despite its flaws. I got to play with humour ("Fairytale"), teen girl (Slayer) gossiping ("Loyalties"), mass fight scenes ("Saved), quiet conversation ("Weapons"), shifting 'art film' time experimentation ("Blood"). I got to explore themes I wanted to in greater depth than the show itself could spare time on, elaborate on characters the series wouldn't care about, and challenge myself with character and thematic development. I got to play with alternate lengths, from a 6-page intimate conversation to a 24-page blast. Reviews were mostly unimpressed save for a couple bright spots, but I'm still very happy with the work done here. A fantastic experience.

Some themes I've noticed, looking through the scripts I've plotted or written...

Sarcastic, Distant, Somewhat Cold Female Characters: A long-held cliche of the icy woman with secret damage, this archetype has been surfacing in my plots for a long time. Shannon of Lost, the selfish and emotionally-distant character centring my first-ever script; Sasha Nyte, the cruel and frankly bitchy villainess I tried to deepen; Diana Cross, the damaged and spoiled Runner of The Company; dark and dangerous wicca Kira Brogan of Slayer Academy; and sarcastic and vicious Slayer Fran St. James are all somewhat related to this archetype, and yet each having numerous layers and subtleties separating them from the rest. Note that I didn't create them all, but I was very interested in the development of them all. If you look to my most well-known pitch, you'll also include Hidden Swords' Karen Dawson in here.

Time: I love playing with time. Remember, folks, my first VS project was an attempt at Lost, the most temporally-centred TV series we've seen in a long time. A lot of my episodes feature flashbacks (Lost VS 2x01/2x03, LC:G 1x03/1x05, PW 2x15, NW 1x06, tC 2x14, many SA webisodes), including the temporally-dislodged SA webisode "Blood". However, time is often addressed in very different ways in others, even in little ways - the Pathways gang share their daily schedules while flashing forward to their first appearances in class under it; missing periods of time/memory are key to The Grey 1x01 and 1x03, SA4x06 opens with a flashforwarding montage a la Battlestar Galactica. And even when time isn't physically tackled in the episode, it's a major theme in almost every story I tell; the characters' pasts are almost always immensely important to the story at hand.

In The Grey, Rose is defined by her lack of a past and, thus, a struggle to find her identity. The third episode tackles time when the history of the village, as presented, is full of wholes, and Tessa struggles to understand why the village's real past would be obscured; meanwhile, RJ and Rose's entire relationship is destroyed by his suddenly-vanished memories. There's thematic elements here, struggling with ow important the past is to us and how it defines our sense of selves and our relationships. Does something we remember matter? Does the history of a place matter, or is Tessa merely looking for problems where none exist? Sarah is a young girl unburderned by history; Alex and R.J.'s relationship is marred by their absence in one another's lives. R.J. and Tessa's romantic history ties them together when nothing else does. The past is as important in this story as the present; what is known and unknown, remembered and forgotten, experienced or unexperienced, influences everything.

The Company 2x14 (The Day That I Died) is all about the past; the characters' relationships with and memories of death constrasted with Kou's sudden, final death. The episode bounces between past and present, while Diana is lost in her past with Kou and, indeed, her brother.

Slayer Academy 2x16 (Pieces) is also wholly about the past: each character is struggling with a sudden change, between what just was and what it suddenly is not. Anna grieves for her lost team, Braeden struggles with dividing himself from Sofia, Kira is forced to face the motherly feelings she has been forced to rediscover after Delaney's kidnapping. It's about how everything changes in one moment; they all have whiplash. Time is directly noted in Braeden's dialogues with Dana; her comments will only truly make sense to the audience weeks, if not years, later. Slayer Academy 4x06 (Within) is all about the past, the intertwining histories of Cassandra and Fitzgerald and how it shaped them. Cassandra is haunted by her death at the hands of the Council, while Fitzgerald is searching for redemption for even her small part in the operation of Keenan's facility. Slayer Academy 3x10 (Need to Know) is about how fear of our pasts, the secrets we've kept hidden, can attack us out of nowhere. Slayer Academy 3x13 (Okaasan) is all about Alita looking to the past for fulfillment and learning things that explain how her life was shaped; but finding her mother's killer does not resolve the hole in her heart. Slayer Academy 4x07 (Mercy) is the culmination of an arc that stretches into the past back to season one, in Dunstall's seduction of Frankie, as well as revealing important facts about Frankie's past that completely upset her view of her life.

In both Night Stalker 1.5x09 (Trinity) and 2x04 (Bushido), the past comes back to haunt the characters in dangerous ways; past decisions are met with retribution. In fact, all of Night Stalker is about the past, reporters chasing after past events they didn't witness, searching for meaning and answers they may never get. There are a lot of things we will never learn about the lead guests of both "Trinity" and "Bushido"; our leads learn only a fraction of the story. Just enough to make sense of it.

The Slayer Academy webisodes are set out of sync with the season itself, allowing both to communicate with one another in nontraditional ways - Karen's past revealed in "War" sheds light on her part in "Spreading the Disease"; Mela's relationship with Delaney in "Godsend" foreshadows the revelation of her magic in "Saved"; Tsula's crisis of faith sees an early seed planted in "Kaboom"; Hamish's plan in "Godsend" is introduced, the audience unaware, in "Mission". It's simultaneously a present-day story and a series of flashbacks, depending on the reader's vantage point.

"Blood" is especially interesting to note, here: The structure of the timeline it presents is important because we've seen some things referenced, while others are unknown; in the webisode, the glimpses are included chronologically, while the actual webisodes and episodes are out of sync. Thus, there are scenes from webisodes not-yet-aired (when "Blood" aired) which come, chronologically, before scenes we've seen in "Godsend"; and there are scenes that will presumably be addressed in season five, making it ultimately quite complex to read first-run. And yet, once the series has ended, the reader will recognise all of the clips and make easy sense of it, because the events in their memory will make sense of the in-series chronology.

(more potentially forthcoming...)