Television Writing

September 20, 2016

September 20, 2016

I felt terrible about being tardy on the very first day of a nine-month class and the panicked rush to minimize the damage made me even more nervous than I would have been anyway (which is pretty darn anxious). A fight-or-flight surge of adrenalin takes over when I have to speak in front of a group of strangers and unless I’m very careful, I talk at supersonic speed. I felt like I was making a terrible impression on this new group of kids which flustered me even more. There’s an obvious solution – think less about how I’m coming across and more about the kids I’m here to teach. Gradually I leveled out. I took some admittedly poor photos of my class that first day.

They weren't being rude and texting. I asked them to take selfies and email them to me - to help me me learn their names.
They weren’t being rude and texting. I asked them to take selfies and email them to me – to help me me learn their names.

This was the first day of my second year teaching Screen Writing Symposium at Columbia and I couldn’t imagine ever liking a class as much as I liked my first class. I kept up with them (as much as you can with occasonal updates on Facebook) but I actively missed our Thursday afternoons in Room E.  I struggled to remember the names of my new students. I thought, it will never be the same.

Josh Andersen, Kevin Salcedo, Peter Zaragoza, Kaitlyn Hutchins, Justin Thompson, Alex Falcon, Charlotte Scrivener, Holden Weihs, Ryan Brennan. Not pictured: Tanner Novotny
Josh Andersen, Kevin Salcedo, Peter Zaragoza, Kaitlyn Hutchins, Justin Thompson, Alex Falcon, Charlotte Scrivener, Holden Weihs, Ryan Brennan. Not pictured: Tanner Novotny

I was right; it wasn’t, in the same way my second child isn’t the same as my first and my third is quite different from both siblings. Inevitably, every class – especially one that meets four hours a week for nine months – develops it’s own unique identity. Comparing them is futile, they’re both special – irreplaceable – in their own way. Just like I miss the kids in my first class on Thursdays, I miss the kids in my second class (except, I taught them on Tuesdays, Fridays, and finally Mondays, so I didn’t associate them with a day).

top, l-r: Jarred McClarty, Kendall Collins, Danae Fishman, Andrew Levin; bottom, l-r;David Alvarez Faith-Ann Bishop, Ryan O'Donnell, David Lugowski. Not pictured: Michael Akkerman, Natalie Frank
top, l-r: Jarred McClarty, Kendall Collins, Danae Fishman, Andrew Levin; bottom, l-r;David Alvarez Faith-Ann Bishop, Ryan O’Donnell, David Lugowski. Not pictured: Michael Akkerman, Natalie Frank

I hope to keep up with them as they traverse the real post-college world, probably via Facebook.  I’d like to see all of them again too.  I fantasize that if and when I retire, I’ll host a party at my house for all my former students and the ones that show up will regale me with the highs and lows of their careers. Hopefully, their wins will far outpace their losses.

top, l-r: Jarred McClarty, Kendall Collins, Danae Fishman, Andrew Levin; bottom, l-r;David Alvarez Faith-Ann Bishop, Ryan O'Donnell, David Lugowski. Not pictured: Michael Akkerman, Natalie Frank.
top, l-r: Jarred McClarty, Kendall Collins, Danae Fishman, Andrew Levin; bottom, l-r;David Alvarez Faith-Ann Bishop, Ryan O’Donnell, David Lugowski. Not pictured: Michael Akkerman, Natalie Frank.

September 10, 1996

September 10, 1996

This was an exciting, productive time in my writing career. Maybe a few lucky screen and television writers enjoy steady careers uninterrupted by unemployment; I suspect the majority, like myself, are either overbooked or out of work and terrified their career is over. My specialty, which kept me employed – mostly by NBC – during this period was my speed. I could deliver a Movie of the Week (MOW) ready for production in two weeks. It might not win any Emmys or Humanitas awards, but no one needed to use a pseudonym or hang their heads in shame.

8/7 PM Saturdays on NBC.
8/7 PM Saturdays on NBC.

I felt the pressure but didn’t mind it; I thrived on the crazy deadlines. I enjoyed and respected the creative people I worked with. I loved how MOWs (especially green-lit ones!) went into production minutes after I handed in a script. None of the months and years of development that went into film assignments only to wind up abandoned when the studio regime changed.

NBC Loomed large in my life and my cousin Craig and his wife Karen (who shares my exact birthday - year and everything) when they visited us in California.
NBC Loomed large in my life and my cousin Craig and his wife Karen (who shares my exact birthday – year and everything) when they visited us in California.

Another perk – television writers exert considerably more control over their work than feature writers; this is far truer for staff series writers than MOW writers. Either way, you are far less likely to be rewritten in television than features. That said, I did my fair share of MOW rewrites as well as originals; my name doesn’t appear on some of them because, unless it’s a page-one rewrite, it’s difficult for second or third writers to get credit and it always involves a WGA arbitration.

Outside in the NBC parking lot with Craig and Karen Thu again.
Outside in the NBC parking lot with Craig and Karen Thu again.

Kanan Road – which became Malibu Shores – has a special place in my heart because it was a backdoor pilot for a series which was ordered into production early in ’97. It turned out to be short-lived (being scheduled at 8 PM on Saturday nights – what some people called “the Tower of London” because that’s where NBC shows awaited execution – didn’t help. Especially since the target demographic was teens). That said, I learned a lot and appreciated every minute of it. I’m grateful to everyone who made it possible.

NBC Dropped the ball on this one..........
Did anybody drop the ball, who knows?

 

May 15, 2005

May 15, 2005

My favorite photo (that I took) of Deadwood
My favorite photo (that I took) of Deadwood

 This was one of my favorite family vacations. Sam graduated from an upstate New York college the week before. John and I flew to Buffalo and rented a gigantic van. Our plan was to load four years’ worth of Sam’s worldly possessions plus ourselves in the van and drive it across the country to LA. None of us had done it before.

Alex joins the Rowell Road Trip a couple days late
Alex joins the Rowell Road Trip a couple days late

Aside from the fact our luggage didn’t travel with us to Buffalo and we weren’t able to reunite with it until we hit Philadelphia – aside from that snafu, everything went as smoothly as it possibly could for a sweaty family of four jammed into a hot (that’s hot as in sweltering, not Corvette).

The second time we drove far out of our way to see Mt. Rushmore and - once there - stuck around for less than five minutes.
The second time we drove far out of our way to see Mt. Rushmore and – once there – stuck around for less than five minutes.

We picked up Alex at the Columbus airport after he finished his finals. Regrettably, Chris and Serena couldn’t make it. Just as well, since two more riders would’ve meant strapping someone to the ski rack. Our van featured a DVD player to help the boring miles speed by. In between all the anime, we viewed the first season of Deadwood again to psych ourselves up for our visit to the same.

Alex in the Maze
Alex in the Maze

A brief review of Deadwood, the HBO series. The first season was brilliant.  The second had its moments. The third jumped the shark.  A traveling Shakespearean acting troupe planted themselves in Deadwood for the season and – like the big black hole of an idea this was – gulped airtime and sucked away all semblance of plot.  A mercy killing would’ve been kinder. The Shakespearean acting troupe  was tantamount to a Deadwood Talent Show.

Laverne & Shirley - The Talent Show

You remember the dreaded Talent Show trope, you’ve seen it before – most egregiously in the final season of Showtime’s OZ, when inmates in a maximum-security prison sang and tap-danced for their fellow sadistic killers. Laverne and Shirley’s brewery threw a Talent Show. So did General Hospital. Suffice to say none of them have elevated the art form.  IMHO, when a show stoops to the dreaded Talent Show, it deserves to die. No appeals, no reprieves. Everything must end someday; some should do it sooner.

Great Family Road Trip

Back to the Great Family Road Trip through Eccentric America in a few days.

April 26, 1996

April 26, 1996

Malibu ShoresUnfortunately, this was the first and last cast party for Malibu  Shores – eight episodes aired on NBC at 8 PM Saturday nights before we got cancelled. It makes me feel a little bit better (but not much) that our time slot was referred to as the “Tower of London” – where shows were sent to await execution.

Malibu Shores TV

Pull the plug

Malibu Shores TV - OFF

This was my only experience on staff at a TV show. At first, it was a huge shock to my system – we were expected to work in the Aaron Spelling offices from 9 AM until midnight or beyond (plus weekends) if necessary. Eventually, I adapted and grew to love it right around the time it ended. The time pressure could be as exhilerating as it was exhausting. It was gratifying to see what we wrote produced as soon as copies could be made instead of enduring the uncertainty of casting-contingent MOWs (also referenced above).

Charisma Carpenter
Charisma Carpenter

For the millions who never saw a moment of Malibu Shores, Charisma Carpenter was cast as the ultra-bitchy queen bee popular girl. She played the part perfectly – no one came  close to her reading in the casting process – which was truly a testament to her talent for acting. In person, she was delightful, friendly and unassuming.

Charisma Carpenter, Queen Bee
Charisma Carpenter, Queen Bee
Keri Russell
Keri Russell

Keri Russell was also terrific in the lead role, which she also nailed with a sensational audition.

Star-crossed Malibu Shores teen lovers Keri and Tony
Star-crossed Malibu Shores teen lovers Keri and Tony

I love to watch her brilliant, nuanced performance on The Americans today and remember the beautiful sun-kissed teen she played on Malibu Shores.

 

April 13, 1994

April13, 1994

She led two lives_edited-1

 It’s exciting when a script goes out for casting. The Helios Movie of the Week, “She Led Two Lives,” ended up starring Connie Selleca.  The project I was about to travel to Texas to research didn’t get made. A disproportionate number of research trips took me to small towns in Texas, probably because a lot of stories ripe to be turned into TV movies occur in  small Texas towns.

I knew a lot about small Iowa towns - like Graettinger, my father's home town.
I knew a lot about small Iowa towns – like Graettinger, my father’s home town.

These were heady, exciting times but some of my weaker diary entries. Today’s entry reads like a call sheet. Mentions of J and my family are cursory, I didn’t record any adorable things the kids said or profound observations from my dad. In retrospect, I wish I’d filled these pages with personal anecdotes and quotes from my family instead of tracking blips on the radar of my career.

Summer days with the kids.
Summer days with the kids.

This leads to a bigger regret – I wish I’d spent more time with my children when they were young instead of obsessing about my next writing assignment. The writing doesn’t matter much now but I’d give anything for a few days with Chris, Sam and Alex when they were thirteen, six and five. (Maybe not thirteen, that was rough.) In my dreams, they’re always five or six.

Summer with the kids

Before I feel too guilty or too sorry for myself, I should add that I was lucky. I wrote at home, not in an office, and I could make my own schedule. To all intents and purposes, I was a stay-at-home mom who could volunteer at their school or scout troop, pick them up if they got sick in the middle of the day etc. Maybe I took all that time for granted and that’s why I didn’t value those years enough. I hope to do better when and if I have grandchildren.

With CD. It would be nice to have a baby in the family again.
With CD. It would be nice to have a baby in the family again.

 

 

April 8, 1973

April 8, 1973

Image from "The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States 2014."
Image from “The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States 2014.”

The extreme competition for a toehold in the entertainment industry makes it a major challenge. That, plus the fact a lot of people assume there’s nothing to it. Most people would never attempt to perform brain surgery or extract wisdom teeth because they’re not trained professionals – but when it comes to acting, writing, directing, everybody’s an expert. Some people are right, they’ve got what it takes. Most are wrong; they fail to realize the craft and hard work involved in making it look easy.

Me around 1973
Me around 1973

For years, industry experts have claimed that if you write a great script, it will be discovered but I disagree. I can’t prove it but I suspect a lot of great scripts die in the drawers of discouraged writers unable to get a read from somebody with enough power to help.

Link to a YouTube series by Michael Akkerman, one of my current students at Columbia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClffzUrRDXk
Link to a YouTube series by Michael Akkerman, one of my current students at Columbia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClffzUrRDXk

I got my big breaks from professors in college – notably Bill Froug and Shelly Lowenkopf – who liked my work and recommended me to agents. That’s my first advice to anyone who wants to break in. Take a class, impress the professor, make friends with him, her or anyone else with connections. The seminar’s bottom line advice was correct for its time –  networking (“hanging around”) and exuding confidence are your best bet.

Link to "Life as a Mermaid" a web series my current student Faith-Ann Bishop and former student Ryan Brennan have both contributed to. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhhRQ8-sIZc&t=41s
Link to “Life as a Mermaid” a web series my current student Faith-Ann Bishop and former student Ryan Brennan have both contributed to. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhhRQ8-sIZc&t=41s

To a certain extent, YouTube and other on-line venues level the playing field. If your short film goes viral, it doesn’t matter if you live in Kansas and don’t know a  soul in Hollywood. They’ll find you.

Marketing
Marketing & Branding are essential to success.

I hate the word platform but it can’t be ignored in today’s market. An ability to market and brand yourself is invaluable. These subjects weren’t taught when I was in film school and I’m not sure they’re taught today – but they should be.

April 1, 1982

April 1, 1982

 “I Was a Spy at Hollywood High” was a Movie of the Week idea that should have worked out but did not. Unfortunately, this scenario – things not working out well enough to get green-lit – happens far more often not. I never got used to it; it’s disheartening because everyone goes into a film or TV project with high expectations (if you didn’t think it would work, why bother?) However, studios and networks develop far more projects than they produce so the odds are rigged against success.

What are the odds?

 “I was a Spy at Hollywood High” was based on a true story by another woman in her late twenties who – just like me in ’81 – successfully posed as a high school student. That’s where the similarity ends but it was enough to land the job. She went back to Hollywood High, not the high school she originally attended. She stayed much longer and lived an entirely different story. Specifically, she became a big-time body builder.

The closest I will ever come to being a body-builder.
The closest I will ever come to being a body-builder.

It’s been 35 years and I don’t recall exactly how posing as a high school student led to her immersion in the world of body building. Suffice to say, my experience was different. If anything, my aversion to PE – both times I attended high school – guarantees body building will never make my bucket list.

My idea of aquatic exercise (at the same spa as above)
My idea of aquatic exercise (at the same spa as above)

It made me wonder about her motivation for going back to high school in the first place. I’ve never met the woman, I’m not a shrink and it’s been years since I read her manuscript – so take the following analysis for what it is, pure conjecture with no foundation in fact. Is it possible her real motive for returning to high school was to resolve subconscious body issues? If so, does it follow that anybody crazy enough to voluntarily return to high school is doing so, at least in part, to deal with long-standing subconscious issues? If so, what were mine?

Subconscious Issues??_edited-1

My conscious mind really wants to know.

March 3, 1973

March 3, 1973

From the official website of the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation - Sleeping Beauty
From the official website of the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation – Sleeping Beauty

 The night before – my 22nd birthday – the guy I was dating took me to see Rudi Nureyev in Sleeping Beauty with the National Ballet of Canada at the Shrine Auditorium. Jani’s boyfriend  from Irvine took her to the ballet too so we met them at intermission – Jani’s 20th birthday would be the following day. I don’t know about Janet, but this is the only professional ballet I’ve ever seen. The lavish fairyland sets were amazing, as was Rudi in his prime, but the truth is ballet doesn’t hold my interest. I pretend to be interested, because I feel like I should be, but I’m bored. I don’t blame ballet – I’m well aware it’s my own attention span that’s deficient. (Yet another reason I failed to realize my early dream of growing up to be a ballerina, see November 7, 1966)

Jani and I might not have been ballet dancers, but we choreographed a mean routine to "Ain't To Mountain"
Jani and I might not have been ballet dancers, but we choreographed a mean routine to “Ain’t No Mountain”  (See September 23, 1972)

Jani’s comment – “Did you try and do any of the ballet steps when you got home?” – got to me.  It was so spontaneous, so in the moment. Obviously, she paid attention, so much so that she was moved and inspired to try to do the steps at home. I envied her enthusiasm then and I still do today. I’d love to be that kind of person but it’s impossible to be somebody I’m not.

CD and Geo in ballet class (not their choice - but they made the best of it).
CD and Geo in ballet class (not their choice – but they made the best of it).

The closest I’ve come to ballet since then is taking my kids to ballet lessons. CD and his BFF Geo Ackles took ballet as toddlers. It was a great excuse for the boys to get together and for me to chat with David Ackles but neither lad looked like a future Nureyev.

With the other dead ballet dancer, waiting.
With the other dead ballet dancer, waiting.

Sam was more interested in climbing than ballet although she did play a dead ballerina in one of my television movies, Friends to the End.  She and a dead male ballet dancer haunt the villainess in the final scene. Her blue costume was the reason I wanted to be a ballet dancer in the first place – the gorgeous fantasy clothing.

Why can't people wear clothes like this in daily life?
Why can’t people wear clothes like this in daily life?

Alex was spared ballet, to his great relief, so no embarrassing photo ops of him.

March 1, 1965

March 1, 1965

animated-scared-image-0006

what if?

What a classic example of freaking out about something that isn’t close to happening. From the sound of this entry, I wasn’t even babysitting when I started down this terrifying path of “What ifs?”  That said, on more than one actual babysitting job, my parents had to deliver Janet to calm me down – and I hadn’t even seen movies like Halloween.  (They hadn’t been made yet and even if they’d been available, my parents forbade us to see horror movies. Their attitude was, “If you still want to see this gore when you’re 18, fine. Until then, you don’t need it.”  Given my propensity for hysteria, I can’t argue with their wisdom.

Photo clearly taken on March 2nd - could be 1965, not sure (sadly)
Photo clearly taken on March 2nd – could be 1965, not sure (sadly)

This tendency to extrapolate the most dreadful outcome of any given situation was a curse in romantic relationships. If a guy didn’t call me on time, I convinced myself he was losing interest, intended to drop me, hated me, was madly in love with my worst enemy. Once these ideas took hold, it was hard to release them and I turned into a needy clingy nutcase.

In front of our house on Del Monte around this time.
In front of our house on Del Monte around this time.

Lucky for me, one area where catastrophizing is an asset not a liability is film and television writing.  When writing a movie of the week, you look for the worst possible alternative. If a husband checks out the hot divorcee down the street, odds are his wife will be dead by the first commercial break. The more trouble a writer can hurl at his hero, the more dramatic and emotionally involving the story. The principle works in fiction – not so much in real life.

February 21, 1993

February 21, 1993
 Matthew Patrick was the young director of a movie I wrote for the USA network called “Tainted Blood”. As the title suggests, it wasn’t nominated for any Emmys but it was an entertaining psychological thriller (which adopted girl is the psycho-killer?)

Tainted Blood
The ad that ran in TV Guide when the movie aired in ’93.

Cast against type, Raquel Welch did a good job as an investigative journalist. Given her fame and beauty, I expected a cold bitch and was pleasantly surprised she was warm and friendly – not to mention every bit as stunning in person as she was on-screen.

Paralyzed by self-consciousness, wishing i could think of something fascinating to say.
Paralyzed by self-consciousness, wishing I could think of something fascinating to say.

I never felt like I “belonged” at Hollywood parties so they were stressful. In this case, most of the guests knew each other from weeks on the same set. I never went to the set and didn’t know anyone but the host.

The easiest Hollywood party ever -- my sister Janet's 30th birthday party, less than two weeks after Matthew Patrick's party.
The easiest Hollywood party ever — my sister Janet’s 30th birthday party, less than two weeks after Matthew Patrick’s party. With my sisters and Dolly Parton.

I’m not sure what Sam and Alex were doing at a cast party. To the best of my recollection, Matthew met them when we tweaked the final draft of the script at my house. I wouldn’t have brought them if he hadn’t invited them. His affinity for children impressed me. I thought Laurie Frank was great too (so did Sam) but our paths never crossed again.

Matthew Patrick
Matthew Patrick

Actually, everyone I encountered at the party was likable. I’m the one who erected barriers. No one laughed at my faux pas or dissed my ugly shoes; the only one paying  any attention  to my insecurities was me. When I stopped thinking about myself and turned my gaze on the other guests, I discovered open unpretentious smart and talented people. Too bad I didn’t figure this out till my thirties; high school would’ve been a lot easier.

Other people aren't so scary after all.
Other people aren’t so scary after all.

 


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