Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday questions

It’s Friday question day. Thanks to everyone who participated in the teleseminar last night. It was fun and you guys had some great questions. If you have any blog questions just leave them in the comments section. Don’t ask why I’m charging for the mp3 of the seminar. It’s because I want to exploit you all and get filthy RICH!!!

Sarah starts us off:

I am almost through re-watching Wings, a show I loved growing up and was surprised at how much I still enjoyed it today. The whole cast is great, but one who really stands out to me is Crystal Bernard as Helen. She holds up against the heavy hitters (Tony Shalhoub, Thomas Haden Church, Steven Weber), and I was really surprised at just how funny that little woman is.

So my question is, who are some actors who have surprised you? (either people you've worked with or not?) People who you watched and thought "Man I had no idea that person would be so funny/talented/able to leap tall buildings/etc?

Nancy Travis for one. I always liked her work, thought she was very solid when I saw her in movies. She was suggested for the lead in ALMOST PERFECT but she was at a career stage where we couldn’t have her read. If we wanted her we had to make a firm offer.

We met her, she seemed absolutely delightful, so we took a flier and offered her the role. A few weeks later we had assembled a few candidates for her love interest so we asked if she’d come in and read with the guys so we could see if there was any chemistry. She was happy to since she herself was not auditioning.

And we were blown away. She was fantastic. Funny, real, adorable. She was so good that the actors she played against (some fairly big names) couldn’t hold a candle to her. We knew we had lightening in a bottle.

Lisa Edelstein is another. We hired her on ALMOST PERFECT for a small part primarily because she had the right look. She hit her lines right out of the park. We brought her back, kept giving her more to do, and eventually she became a semi-regular. By the way, as good as she is on HOUSE, I still think she’s being wasted not being in a comedy. She is an exceptional comedienne.

In similar fashion, on CHEERS, Lilith was just supposed to be a one-time character in a teaser. But Bebe Neuwirth scored so big that we had to bring her back.

And two examples of non-actors who proved to be terrifically funny. Both on CHEERS. Alex Trebek and former Boston Celtic, Kevin McHale. We wrote an additional scene for Alex and an additional show for Kevin.

Next is Erika:

Have you ever written an episode for a show and then really disagreed with how a director executed it? As a writer, how do you handle these differences on set? Since you've been on both sides as a writer and a director, I'm curious what you do in those situations.

If you’re the showrunner you have him change it to your satisfaction. There have been times when I’ve had to re-block whole scenes. In TV the showrunner is king.  It's a beautiful thing.

If you’re just a writer on staff, the best you can do is express your concerns to the showrunner and hope he passes along your notes.

If you’re a freelance writer you can speak up to the showrunner if he seems receptive. Otherwise, you just have to live with it (or die with it).

Sometimes when I’m directing, if there’s something I don’t really understand I will seek out the writer and ask him what he had in mind. On filming nights, after each scene I will always ask the showrunner if he's happy and ready to move on.  And I'll ask the writer if he too was happy. 

I’m not going to say any names but there have been times when I thought the director killed our script. Billy Wilder, who was both a writer and director was once asked whether a director should be able to write. And he said, “No. He should be able to READ.”

Bob Summers must’ve been hungry when he came up with this question:

What is the food service like on the shows? I know they have craft tables, but what do they put out on them? What were some of the must haves and must avoids on the menu?

Depends on the show and the budget. EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND’s craft services table was like a Ritz-Carlton buffet. Other shows have peanut butter, Wonder Bread, and a few bagels.

The good ones keep restocking. Breakfast bagel/donut/fruit/cereal fare in the morning, hot lunch entrees then snacks, vegetables, and mostly crap. But it’s the crap that always goes first.

Sometimes the actors will request something specific and as long as it's not ridiculous (endangered species or Spam) the craft-services guy will try to accommodate.  Casts live in mortal fear that their star decides to change his diet and "go healthy".  Suddenly, all the good stuff is gone, replaced by rice cakes and celery.  

I worked on a show where the craft-services guy was just out of rehab. He was terrible and the craft-services table generally consisted of a box of Grape Nuts and four bagels. We suspected he was using some of the budget for drugs, but he was just out of rehab and we thought if we fire him, he might go into a real tailspin. We didn’t want to be responsible for that so we suffered through it.

The guy at JUST SHOOT ME was incredible. Custom omelets every morning. Four-star lunches. How everyone on that cast didn’t wind up 300 pounds by the end of the run I’ll never know.

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