I’ve been urged to share my experience of writing for the American TV system as I’ve experienced it these past few months. Here’s how it went:
1. On the back of the Eleventh Hour remake I get an invite to meet the Bruckheimer gang, aka JBTV, to talk about developing something new, and at the end of the chat they ask if I’d be interested in freelancing an Eleventh Hour episode as a sidebar. So from my ever-ready stock of ideas I pitch them five or six springboards. Then fly home.
2. They call me within three days to say which of them they like, giving specific reasons why they haven’t picked the others (a clash of subject matter with some other episode, a blanket network antipathy to certain subjects). They show all three to Warner Brothers, and Warners pick one. The chosen story is shown to CBS and CBS say yes. No more than a week has passed and we move to the next stage which is:
3. A twelve-page scene-by-scene outline. This takes about four days to write. As I’m sending it in, JBTV book a notes call. Within 48 hours I’m getting their notes in a 20-minute phone conversation. Less than an hour after the call I get an email – it’s my outline with all their notes footnoted in. The revisions are line-specific and take no more than a few hours to execute. The revised outline goes to Warners, there’s another notes call, another footnoted email, same level of input. The second revised outline goes to CBS. CBS add their notes and I’m “launched to script”.
4. Because the outline’s now so tight, the script only takes a week. So we’re now like, three or four weeks into the process and we’re already at first draft. Over the next couple of weeks the script goes through the same three-stage process as followed by the proposal and the outline – JBTV (the production company) draft and notes, Warner Brothers (the studio) draft and notes, and finally CBS (the broadcasting network) draft and notes.
5. The showrunners do a light-touch ‘showrunner pass’ to tweak my last draft into house style and the director starts prep within about three days of my handing it in. Any changes thereafter are purely for production needs. At this point CBS ask for me to do another episode, only this time they need to move a bit quicker. JBTV pick one of the other stories and we’re off again.
So it’s taken roughly seven weeks to get from first conversation to the start of shooting. This really is the way to do notes. They book the notes call before they’ve read the material, which is psychologically good because you don’t get that clunk in spirits when you hand something in and wait and wait and then get summoned to have the error of your ways explained to you. Plus, they’re committing up-front to turning it around at the same kind of speed they expect from you. No notes session takes more than half an hour, and you get instant documentation to back up everything that’s said. And – get this – the notes are about the script, not the ideas behind it! (How many times have you sat through 2-hour meetings where everybody airs their views on the subject-matter, and you come away with not one useful script note?)
And then – the director comes in and shoots the material. All of his or her energy goes straight into staging and framing and pacing and telling the story.
Here’s the nub of it. It looks fast and scary. But for the writer, the actual amount of work in turning out an hour-long script for American TV barely differs from that involved in creating script for a UK hour. The difference is that the US system edits out the soul-destroying longueurs between stages, while your script sits on someone’s desk or some executive disappears on holiday. It’s the same act of writing, but you get to do it in real time; and because of that, you don’t run the risk of anyone – you included – falling out of love with what you’re doing.