My interviewee this month is long-established screenwriter for TV and film and novelist Lee Goldberg. You may have seen his work on TV shows like Monk, Psych and Diagnosis Murder (or The New Adventures of Flipper :)). You can find out more about Lee from his website, his blog, and on IMDB.
I bought a copy of Successful Television Writing from Amazon in 2008 and to my surprise it had your signature inside. I thought that was a nice personal touch. Do you sign a lot of copies or did I get lucky?
Both. I do a lot of signings, usually hand-in-hand with some sort of seminar or speaking event. But there are also a lot of signed copies floating around out there that were returned unsold to the publisher then sent out again to other bookstores.
You have discussed how to ‘read a producer’s mind’ through the main title sequence to gain insights into aspects of a show; such as format, mood and character(s). For example, you mention how the opening sequence of Walker: Texas Ranger sets up both character and format – Walker is a man of action; an almost omnipotent mighty Texas Ranger “who, like a gun-toting Santa Claus is always watching you, knows if you’ve been bad or good, and will be right there to catch you if you commit a crime.” Do you have any tips on how screenwriters can best identify the key elements of a show and how they fit together?
The best way is to watch a lot of episodes of the show and, if possible, to get your hands on some of the scripts. In particular, try to identify how the franchise is reiterated in each scene and how conflict is handled in the show.
You have suggested that someone writing a spec TV script should ask themselves, within the franchise of the show: what conflicts haven’t been explored by the regular characters yet and why haven’t they been explored? Can you describe an example of how you have used this technique successfully to create an original premise for a TV episode?
Bill Rabkin and I wrote an episode of the series Psych before it went on the air. All we had to go on was the pilot. The hero, Sean Spencer, is a guy with a remarkable eye for detail who pretends to be a psychic. He sees little details that everybody else misses. His father is a veteran cop who finds his son very annoying. So we pitched a story in which an old, retired cop comes to Sean for help on the case. The old cop has solved a murder -- he's just unclear a couple of key details to tie it all up and needs Sean's psychic help. Sean says "No problem, what sort of details are we talking about?” And the old cop says “How she was killed, where she was killed, and whodunnit." The thing is that the old guy has Alzheimer's. He knows he solved the case, he has that undeniable feeling of completion, but he took a nap afterwards and forgot everything. We thought it would be interesting to pair up a guy who has an incredible eye for details with someone who is losing his grasp of them. It would be a great way to explore, comedically and dramatically, the central franchise of the show and Sean's character. It also would be a way to explore his relationship with his Dad, who is the old cop's former partner.
You have written that storylines for spec screenplays should be character-based and conflict-driven. Do you draw on much psychology or hypothetically putting yourself in the mind of character when coming up with a character-based conflict, or do you approach each character more as a cluster of storytelling components?
Well, I'm not a psychologist so I don't take that approach. I just imagine interesting situations to put the characters in that will show us who they are, how they think, and how they are different from the other characters on the show. Remember, I am talking about spec episodic screenplays, not spec feature scripts. I don't approach the story from the mind of the character. I approach it as a storyteller. I don't know what you mean by “cluster of storytelling components.” I just want to tell good stories that are full of conflict, drama, and humor within the unique confines and requirements of a particular show.
Another useful point from the book is the difference between the many people who have ‘a great idea for a show’ and the people who actually develop an idea and deliver compelling screenplays based on it. What is the top piece of advice you would like to share with people about how to get from ‘a great idea’ to compelling screenplays?
No offense but I think you're confusing two different points. When I was talking about people who have “a great idea for a show” I meant aspiring writers who think they are ready to create, sell and run a TV series. That is an opportunity only given to experienced, proven writer/producers and established screenwriters. Your question about how to get from a great idea to compelling screenplay is very different. It's one thing to have an idea, it's another to transform that idea into a story told in three or four acts. It also depends on whether that story is for an episode of an existing TV series or a feature film. In either case, you need to come up with a story that can generate enough conflict between your characters to maintain the humor, the drama, and the forward-motion. As we say in Hollywood; ideas are cheap, execution is everything.
Many new screenwriters are unclear about what stage they should be at before they can realistically expect to break into the industry, or when they should approach agents and producers with a realistic probability of a positive response. While I understand that circumstances will vary for different writers depending on their strategy, ability and areas of interest - What in your judgment should a new screenwriter have in their writing folio before approaching people in the industry expecting a positive response?
Three or four great scripts. I'm not just talking about the stories and the characters. The scripts need to read as if they were written by a professional. Too often, I read scripts by writers who sabotage themselves by not knowing the screenplay form well enough, by adding 10,000 parentheticals, and by directing the movie in every scene description.
Mystery, crime and detectives are a recurring element in your writing. What do you find so appealing about this type of writing?
I guess on a basic level, the great thing about mysteries is they have a lot of conflict and forward momentum. The story is driven by a need to solve the mystery -- that gives you somewhere to go, a ticking clock, and built-in conflict.
You have written for TV and written novels. What do you think are some of the major possibilities and limitations of these different forms of writing?
As you say, they are very different kinds of writing. In scripts you have to show, not tell. Character and story have to be revealed only through action and dialogue. A screenplay is a blueprint, a working document for other professionals, like costume designers, location managers, and of course actors and directors. A book is very different. You can go into people's heads to tell stories and reveal character. You have to set the scene in great detail all the time. You are the director, the location manager, the actor and the director. You're creating a complete world with no limitations all by yourself. That can be exciting and daunting at the same time. I've encountered many screenwriters who simply can't write a book and many authors cannot write scripts. I've only met a few who can do both. They are different ways of telling a story and also different ways of thinking of story.
I have read that you're adapting Victor Gischler's novel Gun Monkeys, set for a 2011 release (according to IMDB). Can you tell us anything about that or, alternatively, what's next for you?
A lot is happening with Gun Monkeys but I can't really talk about it. I can say that a major A-list star is now attached and we're hoping that the financing to make the movie will now come together quickly. In the meantime, I'm writing my 11th Monk novel, and an action movie for the German company Action Concept, and another spec script. I'm also partnered with some producers who are developing a slate of low-budget Western movies, based on books, that will go directly to DVD.
Thanks for your time Lee and best of luck with Gun Monkeys, the latest Monk novel, your other feature scripts and everything else.
Here is a link to a post on Lee's blog in which he has discussed writing adapted screenplays, including some details on his adaptation of Gun Monkeys.
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