One of this generation’s greatest screenwriters hits us with a new TV show on HBO. Does he deliver??
Genre: TV Pilot – Drama
Premise: “Here, Now” takes a Portland-based Brangelina-type family – a trio of multicultural adopted children – and asks how they approach life once they’re all grown up.
About: HBO’s golden child and Emmy award-winner Alan Ball (True Blood, Six Feet Under), who is also an Oscar winner (American Beauty) is finally bringing a new show to the network. But the family drama space is getting crowded. With smart well-written hits like Hulu’s “Casual” and NBC’s “This is Us,” can Ball still stand out in the space he pioneered?
Writer: Alan Ball
Details: 61 pages
Back in the late 90s, the game changed for spec scripts.
What happened was that, for the first time, people in Hollywood started utilizing chat-rooms to discuss screenplays.
The reason this was a game-changer was because, up until this point, the people who controlled Hollywood’s opinions on screenplays were agents.
As a writer came close to finishing a script, his agent would hype the script up to producers and studios. By the time it was ready to go out, a bunch of interested buyers were eagerly waving their checkbooks.
The pressure became so intense to get the new hottest thing that studios would make bids on scripts that they hadn’t even finished reading, just to beat the other guy. A great concept and a good first act could result in a high six figure sale.
When the chat rooms came around, however, the gig was up. Assistants would get on these digital information-sharing networks and they would blow through the hype. If a script was bad, this secret cabal would expose it.
Hollywood was never the same after that. You couldn’t bullshit anyone anymore. You actually had to write something good. And what these chat rooms exposed was the fact that mostly everything wasn’t good. Without hype to distort opinions, you’d be lucky to get a, “Eh, it wasn’t terrible.”
This new reality continued for a couple of years until one script arrived that blew all these impossible-to-please readers away. That script was American Beauty, by an unknown writer at the time named Alan Ball.
Every reader came back with the same reaction: BRILLIANT!
And that’s how American Beauty became the poster child for writing scripts in the internet age. No more bullshit. If you want to sell something, it needs to be good.
This is why, when Alan Ball writes something, everyone in town wants to read it. And I’m no different. I’m a monster fan. If I could only invite five screenwriters throughout history to a dinner party, Ball would be on that list.
So to say my expectations are high today would be an understatement. However, I have a funny feeling that Ball will meet them.
26 year-old Duc (pronounced “Duke”) is a life coach and member of a very odd family. Audrey, the mother, and Greg, the father, took the Brangelina route of building a clan. They adopted kids from all over the globe.
There’s Duc, who’s Vietnamese. There’s Ramon, who’s from South America. And there’s Ashley, who’s African. Completing the family is 15 year-old Kristin, a self-proclaimed pudgy pasty white girl who’s not nearly as hot as she wants to be. Kristin was an unexpected addition, the only biological child in the family, making her, ironically, the black sheep.
The plot for the pilot is built around Greg’s 60th birthday party. Greg, who fucks a Japanese escort every week, can’t handle how quickly life has gone by. And he doesn’t want to be reminded of it with some giant birthday bash.
But his problems aren’t as bad as Ramon’s. Ramon has enjoyed being a sexually adventurous gay man for the last few years of his life when he starts seeing the numbers “11:11” everywhere. At first he thinks nothing of it, but they appear so frequently (we watch as his treadmill inexplicably gets stuck on 11:11 for a full 30 seconds) that he’s starting to think something is wrong.
Meanwhile Ashley, who’s happily married (to the ideal white man), is secretly a coke-fiend who loves to play as close to the fire as she can get without getting burned. Case in point, she’s found a new boy-toy in 18 year-old Randy, a male model. She convinces him to join her at Dad’s party tonight, with the caveat being that he can’t tell her husband that she invited him.
Once the party gets started, everyone lets loose. Kristin, who’s decided it will be funny to wear a horse-head the entire night, takes a liking to Randy. Ramon brings home a coffee barista he’s been flirting with, and the two promptly sneak away to have sex. Greg is trying not to have a mental breakdown and, with a little alcohol, seems to be in better spirits.
But everything unexpectedly goes to hell when Ramon’s 11:11 vision takes a turn for the worse. So much so, that it will change his, and his family’s, life forever.
If you want to get better at creating rich interesting characters who pop off the page, there’s no one better to study than Alan Ball.
Ball knows that if we don’t feel the characters on the page, or on the screen, we won’t care what the fuck happens to them. And the thing is, he’s so focused on that, that he barely needs any plot to tell his story. Every single person here is so fascinating that THEY become the story.
It’s in stark contrast to yesterday’s script, which was so plot heavy that all the characters got lost in the muck. It’s a great reminder that proper character creation allows you to be less plot-focused. And since plotting’s always a bitch, that’s a huge advantage.
One of the nice lessons I learned with today’s script comes from something we were just discussing last week – SETUPS AND PAYOFFS.
Normally, setups and payoffs are done through plot. But Ball reminds us that you can utilize them through character as well.
The best example of this comes from Kristin, the 15 year old biological daughter in the family. Kristin hates how she looks so much that she creates fake Facebook profiles with pictures of beautiful women, just so she can get attention from men somehow. Kristin desperately wants someone but believes nobody would want her.
So later, during the party, when Kristin is wearing her horse mask, she runs into a dejected Randy, the model, who’s since been rebuked by Ashley, Kristin’s older sister. Kristin’s character has been so well set up at this point, that before she’s even approached Randy, we’re freaking the hell out, saying, “Oh shit oh shit! She’s going to get the model! She’s going to get the model!”
The ensuing interaction is one of those script moments that, without proper setup, would’ve come off as mundane. Instead, it’s a highlight.
This is the power of Alan Ball. He gets it. He has such a strength for taking potentially boring ubiquitous things – like Greg’s fear of getting old – and creating powerful characters to explore those things, that we feel like we’re dealing with it for the first time.
Here, Now is a pilot that achieved something unthinkable to someone who reads everything. It made me feel something. It made me think. It actually has something to say about the world and people and how we experience life. It’s quite the pilot and definitely lived up to expectations.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: When you write a TV pilot, really really really focus on character. People have to see your characters and say, “I want to spend time with these people every week.” If your characters are in any way bland or even “just above average,” we’ll have no interest in your show. So here are three suggestions to get you started in this department.
1) Give each character a great description. Don’t worry if it’s a little long. Again, characters matter more in television so the rules in regards to describing them can bend a bit. Here’s a description of a character in Here, Now: “Barista HENRY BERGEN (20) is behind the counter in BLACK PANTS, WHITE SHIRT and some sort of VEST with a NAME TAG. Beard, tattoos. Cocky, handsome, gravitates toward a simpler existence. Doesn’t need much, appreciates what he has.”
2) Within the limitations of your story, introduce each character with a memorable action that defines who they are. I see too many passive character introductions in screenplays. Within the context of the scene, make me interested in your character when I meet them. When we meet Ashley, she is berating an employee for an action that cost her company a huge chunk of time. It immediately sets the tone for the character.
3) Give your characters MOMENTS they shine in the areas they shine in. So if you have a character with a wicked tongue, give her a scene where a department store cashier shames her and she retaliates by telling her off in some clever way. If all you’re doing is serving the plot and not giving your characters these moments, they’re going to disappear on the page.
Bonus Question: Who would be the five screenwriters throughout time that you would invite to your dinner party?