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Volume 18, Number 1
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Made for TV
Writing and directing for film and for television are often two sides of the same coin: the two mediums have many visual, technical and even narrative similarities, but there are also marked differences in how episodic TV and feature films are made. Following are some thoughts and opinions from a number of SVA alumni who work in both mediums.
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Daniel Minahan (BFA 1987 Film and Video) is a sought-after director of both television and film. “I don’t differentiate between film and TV,” he says. “Both experiences are gratifying.” Minahan’s canon of work shows how he has moved back and forth between both mediums. Although he studied documentary filmmaking and video art and wrote several screenplays while at the College, upon graduating he leaned toward television to earn a living. His first job was field-producing for Buzz (a 1990 MTV production), then editing documentaries for World of Wonder Productions, which led to producing documentary programs at the BBC, FOX and PBS.

But he left television in the mid ’90s to work on a documentary about Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Andy Warhol in 1968. All that television documentary work influenced how Minahan would shape that project. “Documentary television informed the way I tell stories. I work to find the truth,” he says. Minahan applied this philosophy to telling the story of Solanas and her feelings of being an outsider, making the story poignant and universal. Eventually the project outgrew the confines of the documentary format and bloomed into the independent film screenplay for the 1996 movie I Shot Andy Warhol.

That experience and the previous years making TV documentaries made Minahan’s next project possible, a feature film called Series 7: The Contenders, which Minahan wrote and directed himself: “I got the idea while I was a TV journalist at the BBC. Cops was at the peak of its popularity,” he says. “Making TV documentaries had taught me to have respect for the people I was interviewing, but shows like Cops were breaking those rules by exploiting people” in order to titillate and entertain audiences. Minahan videotaped hours and hours of Cops, building a massive research base for a film screenplay about a reality television show in which a group of contenders are forced to kill each other in order to win the prize. The screenplay was an assault on cultural indifference to the onslaught of reality TV shows that torture people to entertain audiences, with the audience and the producers of the show serving as the villains of the piece.

The distinct contours of television and film merged in this screenplay, and it demonstrates how Minahan’s work blurs the boundaries between the two mediums. This approach attracted the attention of the prestigious Sundance Institute, which promoted the screenplay’s development in 1996. “At the time, shooting on digital was blowing up,” Minahan says. That development supplied not only the means to shoot the film, but its visual look also blurred the boundaries between the television show within the film—and the film itself.

Series 7 was so popular that TV writers on HBO’s Six Feet Under were passing it around among themselves, leading to an invitation from the show’s creator and screenwriter, Alan Ball, to direct episodes. Minahan went on to direct for many other shows, including The L Word, Grey’s Anatomy, Deadwood and, currently, The Good Wife and True Blood.

One of the key ingredients found in many of the most successful television series is consistency. Viewers tune in each week to watch the same core cast and the same narrative tone and style. Each TV series has a well-defined overall template, which helps maintain the show’s core elements from one episode to the next. If a show strays from its template, it often begins to lose viewers. So TV directors such as Minahan are faced with the daunting responsibility of keeping the look and tone of the show consistent, which is a significant difference from directing a motion picture.

Freddy Boutros is another SVA graduate (BFA 2001 Film and Video) who studied film screenwriting but who has been working exclusively in television since graduation. During his spare time, he continues writing spec screenplays (including Leaving Hazard, winner for best drama screenplay and Saving Sandy, finalist for comedy screenplay at the 2009 City Cinema International Film Festival) and episodes for his own TV show idea he calls Tainted.

For Boutros, the difference between television and film lies in choosing which format is better for the characters he develops. Tainted is about a group of young adults all of whom have super powers and who all live in the same apartment complex run by the millionaire woman who has assembled the team. “I chose TV rather than film for these characters,” he says, “because when I like somebody, I want to keep going back to them, follow them through the years, rather than end it in two hours.”

When you describe a movie to someone, you usually talk about its plot. But when you describe a TV show, it’s more common to describe the characters and the situations they encounter. When a network greenlights a TV series, they are traditionally buying a format that will be able to support at least 100 episodes (often 100 separate stories). So Boutros has written 112 episodes of Tainted, which adds up to more than five seasons of television (most network series produce 22 episodes per season). Having worked in the trenches of TV shows such as Men in Trees and 7th Heaven, he has learned that people tune in to shows because they care about the characters and are eager to see them again. “I want people to root for my characters,” Boutros says.

In movies, characters will most often change along a single, forward-moving narrative arc. In TV, they may learn a lesson during an episode, but it’s important to have a framework that avoids a character’s story ending too neatly—otherwise, why would we need to tune in for the next episode? So character change is replaced by character revelation. As the series continues from season to season, viewers tune in to learn more about the characters, understand them better and how they got that way. Those characters won’t change who they are, but they’ll become deeper and richer.

Boutros applies this formula to his show: “My characters may have super powers, but they are flawed people,” he says. “As in real life, they are not perfect and face the consequences of their own mistakes. One is an alcoholic, another is battling depression, while another has mysterious secrets. Over the course of the show, you keep learning more about them.”

Kim Lisner (BFA 1998 Illustration) has worked in the frontline trenches of production for blockbuster studio films such as I Am Legend and popular TV shows including Fringe and The Good Wife. In Lisner’s opinion, the difference between TV and film lies in time frames. A big studio film may have nine months from preproduction to postproduction. But television shows get approximately four weeks (one week of preproduction, five to 10 days to shoot while sending dailies to the network for editing). “It’s the same group of people,” she says, “but the difference is in how fast they move. TV is in constant turnaround. The output is massive. And the deadlines are unrelenting.”

A somewhat varied point of view on the difference between TV and film comes from Sherese Robinson (BFA 1996 Film and Video), who has written both an award-winning screenplay and episodes for the television shows All My Children and Port Charles. In addition to being a working writer (she is currently rewriting an original pilot being shopped by veteran executive producers Abby Finer and Emily Cohen), Robinson also teaches the SVA course Script Analysis in the Division of Continuing Education.

In her opinion, the key to all screenwriting, whether TV or film, is a consistent structure—a topic about which she is passionate. “I’m a big cheerleader for structure,” she says. “Structure is not to confine you, but to free you. Structure gives you confidence in that you know where you’re going with the story, and once you have all that, you can get crazy with the characters.”

Robinson’s writing attracted attention at ABC television studios, which validates her point that a screenwriter can make it in any entertainment format as long as they are a strong writer. She says, “Even if your film script does not get made, it becomes your business card; it gets passed around industry professionals, gets people excited about your writing, and can lead to writing jobs”—in TV or film. That approach landed her jobs for daytime television soap operas. “I believe that all writers should experience working for a soap opera. It helps them appreciate how quickly an episode gets done. You can’t obsess over a character trait, because everyone has to work fast to get a show on the air.”

Listening to Robinson talk about her soap opera experiences reveals perhaps the biggest difference between television and film: In film an entire script is usually written by one or two writers, and then sold to a movie studio, which in turn hires those same writers (or perhaps new ones) to rewrite several drafts of the script until the studio feels it’s good enough to attract movie stars and marketable enough to appeal to a target audience. But in TV, all the writing is typically done by huge teams.

Robinson recounts the process of how these teams assemble five hour-long scripts every week: “First, there’s the head writing team, which lays out the story for an entire three months to a year. This is called the ‘long story.’ Then there is the ‘breakdown team’ and the ‘outline team,’ which take the big idea and break it down into weekly, episodic segments.” At this point in the process, the script is not yet in screenplay format, as in film. Instead, it’s “part prose, part dialogue, part plot notes,” she says. The teams decide where each day’s story needs to start and where it needs to end.

Again, structure is crucial, and once all that structure is set, more writers meet in groups and the material is assigned. “Each person writes a certain day, and that depends on the strength of the individual writers. Since Fridays are ‘cliffhanger’ days, writers who are strong at plot get those. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are big emotional days, so those go to writers who excel at writing big, turbulent scenes. And finally people will ask, ‘Can she write Mondays?’, because that writer needs to get people to tune in after the weekend” by opening the week with a big narrative bang.

Once these individual daily scripts are completed, they’re e-mailed to the script assistant and then to the story editor, who ensures continuity. “These scripts are still just plot,” Robinson says. “Only then will they go to dialogue writers, who are part of a completely different team.” It’s a structure that ensures adherence to the show’s template while generating large volumes of scripts on a regular timetable. No one person’s vision dominates the process, but the resulting work should have a voice as focused as that in any feature film.

While both are narrative visual mediums, the fields of film and television share as many stylistic and technical differences as similarities. And those who work in these fields are now having to contend with new, emerging platforms: Webisodes, streaming TV and film postings on sites like YouTube and Hulu, not to mention massive multiplayer online video games that combine character and narrative with audience interaction. But regardless of the platform, each of these mediums will always need a good story and enticing characters—and artists with a passion for creating them.

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