Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Film School

My friend Marv Wolfman suggested that I tell some stories here about working in TV. I'll start by answering an email I got from Michelle in Indiana, a fan of my work on Highlander who found my previous web page and asked: "Did you go to film school especially to learn how to write scripts, or did you go to film school to learn to make films, and knowing how to put a script together was a bonus?"

I actually didn't go to film school at all. I went to a college that was all about the academics and not at all about the vocational training. I learned the semiotics of film as an undergraduate, but almost nothing about filmmaking. But I was interested in episodic storytelling from childhood, when I dreamed of growing up to write Hardy Boys books. By High School, I'd figured out that TV writing was my goal -- I credit the series Remington Steele for that realization. I wanted to write new adventures for the characters, and although I dabbled briefly in fanfic, I was blessed with the kind of parents who, when I said I'd decided to be a TV Writer, never doubted it as a possibility. My mother, who'd despaired of ever seeing me move out of her apartment when my ambition was to be a poet, took great comfort in my new plan, declaring that I would now be able to support her. There's really no substitute for that kind of unwavering confidence.

Most of what I knew about TV writing and production, I learned by reading David Gerrold's various "Making of" Star Trek books, and his column in Starlog magazine. During and after college, I worked as an intern and assistant at studios and on shows, read scripts voraciously, and watched TV with an analytical eye. That was my training -- that, and having the good fortune to write some of my first scripts under the excellent tutelage of Tommy Thompson (Quantum Leap), Jim Parriot (Forever Knight), and the unparallelled David Abramowitz (Highlander: The Series), in whose image I am formed.

(I think people underestimate the importance of your first staff job in forming your professional personality forevermore. If you work for someone who likes to stay focused, deliver documents ahead of deadline, distribute praise liberally to his staff, and go home for dinner, you will most likely grow into a similar person. If your first jobs are with bosses who prefer to demonstrate their power, play basketball in the afternoon and then keep everyone in the writing office until midnight, and alternate between rage and despair, you will come to accept this as normal or even necessary to the process.)

Speaking of Highlander: The Series, one of the most fun encounters I had in the wake of working there was when I flew up to Vancouver to be the on-set writer for an episode of Young Blades. This was in 2005, 7 years after HL went off the air. As I was escorted to the catering truck to grab lunch (an A.D. had spotted me at the end of the line and ushered me in front of the background extras, a perk that I appreciated even as I was embarrassed by it), the Catering Assistant (sous-chef? server?), a guy of about 20 at most, asked me, "Didn't you work on Highlander?" I was shocked to be recognized -- I'd visited Vancouver only three times during HL's run, for a few days each time, and was never well-known to the crew other than our beloved Producer Ken Gord, Post-Production Supervisor Tracy Hillman, who became a friend, and Swordmaster F. Braun McAsh, more due to spending time at conventions together than time on the set. Even if I'd been more of a presence then, this guy was far too young to have been on the crew. So WTF? Then he explained that he recognized me from the DVD Commentary I'd done for the show!!!

When I pulled my collection of Highlander Dailies and Outtakes out of the storage room for DVD Bonus Features, all I had in mind was relief that these treasures would finally be available for fans and for posterity. It never occurred to me that I was ensuring my own posterity, as well. But it's worth noting, as writers continue to struggle for recognition, that you never know when and where things will pay off, and doing publicity for your show may turn out to have unexpected benefits for yourself down the line.

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