Friday, April 8, 2011

Friday questions: Inside dish on MASH and pilot advice

Heading up to Seattle for the Mariners’ home opener and tribute to my broadcast partner, Dave Niehaus. I found white shoes. Here are some Friday questions:

Tom gets us started with a question that relates back to Monday’s post.

Referring to vintage hairstyles got me thinking about something I always wondered while watching MASH: Was it a conscious decision especially in later seasons to have some characters (BJ and Hawkeye jump to mind) not even bother with 1950s hairstyles, while other characters (Potter...) did? I always figured it was either because the actors didn't want to get haircuts or because the show was trying to underscore being "really" about Vietnam, not Korea? Or some combination? Or some other reason? Thanks very much.

All readers: buy Ken's book, it's great.

Of course I had to leave that last sentence in.

The answer has more to do with vanity than anything else. Loretta Swit, in particular, wanted to look more glamorous. It is hard to ask an attractive woman to wear army fatigues and combat boots for eleven years while Mary Tyler Moore and Suzanne Sommers and every other lead actress is wearing million dollar wardrobes no sitcom character could ever afford. So Loretta began wearing her down long and tousled. And she began wearing tailored t-shirts with MASH stenciled on the front. There was no such thing in the 1950 U.S. army.

We chalked it up to “creative license”.

The only time it really bugged me was on the episode my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote called POINT OF VIEW. This was the episode seen through the eyes of a patient. At one point he’s on the operating table and Loretta puts the anesthesia mask on him. So her hand fills the screen. And you can see she has long fingernails under her surgical gloves. Now what army nurse in Korea or Earth for that matter, had long fingernails? And they were so prominent that it really stuck out to me.

Otherwise, we asked the audience to buy that eleven years of shows actually took place in 18 months so what the hell if an actress wears a designer army uniform?

Cappy asks:

After a pilot is taped, what is the next step? In other words, do the networks decide whether to air the pilot and/or order some more episodes or whether to order a whole season of episodes?

Once a pilot is taped, the first step is editing. Then comes the network and studio notes. The revised version is then sent off to be research tested by the studio. Based on those results, more changes are made. Finally, a finished (although not really) pilot is delivered to the network. They test it to within an inch of its life.

Then a group of network honchos screen and discuss their pilot slate. Based on the research, personal preference, schedule needs, politics, pre-existing commitments, the opinions of the executives' 12-year-old kids (I'm not kidding) – the network decides whether to pass on a project or go forward.

What does go forward mean? Practically anything. A network can pick a show up for the fall, or as a backup and can order six or twelve more episodes. They can also insist on recasting, or reshooting certain scenes.

And if the studio that produces the show is not owned by the network, then a license fee must be agreed upon. It seems that one or two pilots a season blow up because the studio and the network can’t make the license fee deal.

Think of your pilot as a beautiful bride. And as she walks down the aisle she’s pelted with a thousand paint balls coming from every direction. That’s what happens after the taping.

From Jose:

Ken, I was just curious, given your experience, if you suddenly had to whip up an all-new spec pilot to use as a writing sample, how long do you think it would take you?

I’m not a good example because I’ve been doing this since Lincoln was president so I’m much faster and proficient now then when I started during the Civil War. So don’t go by me. But once I have the idea and the outline I can write a pilot script in a week. However, when I started it was a month.

The bottom line:  TAKE AS LONG AS YOU NEED.

And finally -- Helen has a question.

I'm a British screenwriter working on an idea inspired by something which happened in New York and by a location there. As I live and write in the U.K., although I'm good at dialogue, do you think I'd have more chance of someone picking it up if I transferred it to the U.K.?

You’re probably much more comfortable writing British characters so I would shift the story to London. That’s if I could. If the story is about hijacking the Statue of Liberty, then yeah, maybe I’d keep the story in New York. Otherwise, it seems you have better command with British characters so that’s what I would do. Remember, it’s not just dialogue. It’s attitudes and thought processes. And if you’re not really sure how a New Yorker would act in a certain situation it’s going to be apparent on the page.  Write what you know.

What’s your question?? Go Mariners.

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