Monday, August 20, 2012

It's Not Your Mother, It's a Man, Baby!

I just wrapped up a draft of a television pilot script I’ve been developing (read: “in own mind”) for the last few months. Without giving too much away, it takes place in the mid-1970s and deals with professional sports. Great soil for a show: drugs, race, money… great drama. Only one problem: no women.

The way the story developed – and it developed as a strong, multi-character ensemble – I became keenly aware that one of the drawbacks of trying to be authentic in portraying a boy’s world in what was more of a boy’s era than today is the difficulty of finding a place for strong female characters, especially in a pilot where so much focus is just setting up the world – where so much could be developed down the line in that world.

Now, let’s be clear. I have no interest in creating a show driven entirely by male characters. But, in portraying a world that – at least at first gloss – is driven entirely by male characters, I still want the world I create to be authentic. There were plenty of female characters in the first draft of this pilot and I could see many of them developing into strong characters. The problem is that, in a pilot, the suggestion of development has to be there, sure, but there also has to be something already there (since a pilot is generally only ever going to be just a pilot, not a series).

Take Mad Men and its pilot. It also takes place in a different era, in a more male-centric arena, but it’s been able to introduce many fantastic, strong female roles. But what do we get in the pilot? We don’t get Betty yet. We don’t see Don’s home life until the very last scene. We get Joan and Peggy, so there is the hint that they will show us this world from a female perspective – from the savvy, sexy veteran of the gender game and the shy, homlier newbie. Structurally, these characters serve the pilot extremely well, but I’m putting a lot of weight back onto those characters, I think, because of how they end up developing and serving the show. I don’t know if there’s anything beyond a suggestion of that in the pilot and I might only be reading that suggestion in because I know how that it pans out. I think, if the pilot were a one-off, they could easily be seen in the “women in traditional roles” characters, secretaries in a male-driven world.


But here’s where Matthew Weiner made a very smart play. Along with the cigarette account storyline (men dealing with men), he introduces Rachel Menken, the daughter of a long-time department store owner, who wants Sterling-Cooper to modernize their image. She’s an immediate foil and love/sex interest for Don Draper and she seems perfectly authentic – progressive, but believable for 1960. She’s smart enough to not immediately succumb to Don Draper, which frustrates our protagonist, and becomes the resonant suggestion that this show will find room for strong female characters.

So, I looked back at my story. It works (I think). It works fine the way it is. But if I want to portray a world that’s representative of the depth of complexity that is the core of every person, then I’m going to have to tweak my representation of this world. The strongest choice that didn’t involve blowing up the script and redeveloping it with this in mind (which, most likely, would not lead to the greatest end product) was to change the owner of the sports team from a man to a woman. This forced a lot of things in a lot of scenes to change, but it also worked in the same way that Rachel Menken worked in the Mad Men pilot. Marge Schott bought a minority ownership stake in the Cincinnati Reds in 1981, not so far away from the mid-70s of this story. It would be a little progressive for this era, but not so much that it would create a big believability disconnect. In fact, it would likely produce more interesting relationships than keeping the owner a man.

Now, I’m not breaking any big news by announcing that there are places for strong female roles in traditionally male-centric worlds – and I’m not trying to. But sometimes the tension (or even the perceived tension) between authenticity and painting using the whole human pallet can be a challenge. This was just my way in on this one particular project. And there are plenty of other ways in.  There are just... ways in.

With a full human pallet, I will proceed to paint some happy little trees.

- Robert Attenweiler

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

That Weird Sense of Clarity

The great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami never intended to be a writer. When he graduated from college, he took out a loan and started a jazz club. The club was a great success. He ran it for 10 years.
One night he was at a baseball game. An American player named Dave Hilton was up to bat. Hilton hit a ball deep into the outfield (it would end up being a double). As the ball sailed through the air, a thought, clear and unadorned, came into Murakami’s head – “I’m going to write a novel.”

He did, a novella called Hear the Wind Sing. It won a prestigious writer’s prize. His second novel was also a success, so he sold his jazz club in order to write full time. More than a dozen books later, with sales in the millions, translated into dozens of languages, Murakami is regularly mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize.

A few weeks ago a somewhat lesser writer (me) was sitting at his writing desk in the basement. Sunlight was pouring in through the small window. My son was napping. I had two unclaimed hours ahead of me. It was time to start work on a new version of the play I’m writing for the Blue Coyote Commission Project.
Some ideas had been swimming around for a while, but thusfar I’d been unable to start the actual writing. That day appeared to be no different. I sat there, staring at the screen. I thought of a few things I could write, but nothing felt compelling.

I picked up my book and started to read. I always have a book with me when I write. Reading relaxes me, and lets me stay focused on words without having to focus the words I actually have to write. Barry Bonds said hitting is all about relaxed concentration, and that’s the place I try to find when writing.

As I was reading, I started to think about a story a friend had told me the day before. The subject of the story was so directly applicable to the subject of my Blue Coyote play that I knew I would use it in some way. What I didn’t know was how I would integrate it into the other things I wanted to write.Just to get myself going, I started to write a new scene, completely spontaneously, based loosely on that story.
That’s when it started. 

As soon as I began writing, these “characters” started talking to each other. I put “characters” in quotes because I had no idea who these people were. They didn’t have names. They did, however, have a relationship, though not one I had given any conscious thought to. The rhythms of their speech, their in-jokes and points of contention, came out effortlessly. It was like I was taking dictation.

Then something even more extraordinary happened. As I was taking down what these people said to each other, vistas rolled out in front of me. I could see it all with crystalline clarity. Everything I wanted to talk about in this play fit effortlessly into this scene I had begun to write. This wasn’t a scene in my new play. It was my new play.

To give some background - I have spent months trying to write this play. I wrote fifty pages that were read publically and was deeply disappointed by the result. I decided to quit the commission, slowly came back to the idea of writing a new play, procrastinated for more months, and then, all of a sudden, here it was. A two-person play, in real time, on a single late night in an apartment in Queens. 

I’ve never written a two person play. I’ve never written a play that takes place in real time (a full-length, anyway). It didn’t matter. This is the play that presented itself. This is the play I have to write.

I suppose that would be called a “Eureka!” moment, but I didn’t feel like shouting. It was much more mundane, though no less pleasurable for its simplicity. It was more like a, “Huh. Ok. I guess I’ll do that” moment. It wasn’t dramatic, but it was as clear as anything I’ve ever felt.

I can’t know for sure, but I suspect that’s what Murakami felt that day at the baseball stadium. Not a lightning bolt. No need to shout. Just clarity.

“Huh. Ok. I guess I’ll do that”.

Grace doesn’t always feel like we think it will.

- John Yearley