Thursday 25 October 2012

6 Rules For Writers in Production: Part 1

Should you have the good fortune of having your sitcom script produced as a series, or even a pilot, you will find yourself having to make decisions, think about or offer an opinion, on a staggering number of things. It’s easy to forget that a TV show like, say, Cheers wasn’t shot in a bar, but a TV studio. Every single thing you saw in that bar was brought in and placed by a set designer, art director or props manager. Everything. That's a lot of decisions.

What to Wear

It seems obvious, but the cast of Cheers were mostly fully-clothed. This meant decisions had to be made about what those clothes should be. Norm always walked in from work, and so needed to be in some kind of jacket and tie. Was this in the pilot script? At some point, very early on, between the writing department and the costume department, a writer or showrunner needed to decide what kind of job Norm Peterson did and therefore what clothes he would be walking into the bar wearing. In one sense, Norm’s clothes are unremarkable. Or at least, the audience don’t really notice them. They see a tired, large man after work avoiding his wife, Vera. So his clothes are equally tired. But choosing the right ones requires thought and a decision.

Taking a sitcom from the script into a studio or a location shoot and then onto people’s screens at homes requires someone to make a decision about everything. So here are some rules of thumb I’ve recently come up with on recent operations that might be of interest.

Rule One: Remember that You Don’t Know Really What You’re Doing

It’s an oft-repeated maxim by writers, but it’s no less true for it. ‘Nobody knows anything.’ Bear in mind this was said by William Goldman, the writer of successful movies and novels (including All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathan, A Bridge Too Far etc). If anyone has any right to claim they know something, it is William Goldman. And yet, he is the one who tells us that none of us really knows that they’re doing.

How does this rule help us? It’s worth remembering that this scripts are slippery fish and very tricky to pin down. You do not have all the answers and should not think that you do. You do need a creative vision for your show. You need to have some guts and determination to see it through. But you are not Leonardo Da Vinci, a genius in a world of dullards. You’ve written a script that you think will probably be funny once shot, edited, graded and broadcast.  That’s about as good as it gets.

The point is that if you have a strong sense of your own flawed-ness, you might be easy to work with and nice. You might listen to good advice. Your director or producer’s suggestion that a scene is too complicated or confusing will be met with humility. The subsequent rewrite will, most likely, make the show better. Embrace this. You need all the help you can get.

Rule Two: Remember that You Do Have a Rough Idea of What You’re Doing

Having said all this, you do know roughly what you’re doing. You do know what your show is about, you know who your characters are and you know that jokes need to be clear and comprehensible.

Things can be thrown in last minute that really lift the show, or the episode. A highly talented and creative actor sometimes say ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I said x’ or ‘Wouldn’t it be funnier if I did y’. Sometimes the correct answer is ‘yes. Do that. Say that.' But sometimes you feel in your gut that’s the wrong way to go. Ideas or jokes can creep in that feel wrong, or are out of character, or are only funny if you already know how the scene is meant to run. Things can easily get overcooked. If you’re confident you have a rough idea of what you’re doing, you’ll know when to say ‘no’ to these ideas. And that will be fine because you might have had the grace to say ‘yes’ to other suggestions and ideas.

So Rules One and Two covered. Rules Three to Six in the next post.

In the meantime, why not consider a day in London with Sitcomgeek and the highly experienced Dave Cohen learning about writing comedy for TV and Radio? More details here

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