A Couple of Questions for LB

by Larry Brody

I know, I know. The backlog of career questions I’ve promised to answer but haven’t gotten around to yet is almost as big as Donald Trump’s ego. I’m genuinely sorry about not through them all (or even making a dent). I mean, who doesn’t want a chance to tell old war stories carefully making her or himself the hero?

Now that the People’s Pilot Winners have been announced and I have a (very) short breathing space until plunging into the Feedback, let me reach into ye olde emailbag and see what I can say:

Fp-i-crom SZ:

I loved Partners In Crime. I thought it had a fun premise and it made me fall in love with San Francisco as kid. …The show was shot well and episodes like THE STRANGLER and CELEBRITY and the last episode aired all hold up pretty well. Its like a time capsule of 1984.

It’s fun to hear stories from behind the scenes as you can tell now that the show and the pilot are different. I also remember NBC not airing the pilot until much later, which buried the premise of the show.

My 2 part question is: What was your favorite episode to work on? Why did Jeannine and Bronsky disappear in the final few episodes?

I would love to get a DVD with some commentary one day, the show is a little odd gem.

From LB:

I’ve spoken about PARTNERS IN CRIME here before, but your question has pushed some memory buttons so here’s a 4-part answer to your 2-part question. The pilot differs from the episodes that followed because the creator, the late, great Leonard Stern, had signed on to create an hour-long comedy with some action and suspense and did just that – only to have the network idiots at NBC greenlight half a season and promptly fire Stern and his staff, hiring a new group to “fix” something that wasn’t broken by making it “more coplike.”

I was the new Supervising Producer and spent most of my time on the show looking for somewhere else to be. The atmosphere was toxic. The production company was owned by Johnny Carson and had never done anything but variety style shows before, including THE TONIGHT SHOW. No one in the office complex had a clue as to how the series should work, and the secretaries couldn’t understand why we didn’t want to hear their script notes.

The executive producer (not Johnny) was, basically, a scumbag who spent most of his time talking about how good his sex life was with more detail and color than he ever put into any of his scripts, and mocking the two stars, Lynda Carter and Loni Anderson. The two stars were engaged in a ceaseless battle for more and more perks regardless of what those perks did to the budget. The network execs thought those of us who were actually writing the damn thing were being “rebellious louts” (yep, a recently deceased programming executive actually said that) because although we’d upped the procedural elements and stakes involved in the crime of the week we kept trying to keep the original light-hearted, bantering tone – because that tone worked. (And still works today, as witness CASTLE and BONES.)

About halfway through our mercifully short season, NBC brought in the former producer of THE FBI as another Supervising Producer and made it clear that he was the one in charge. His mission was to take out all the jokes and give the two stars (who played normal housewife types who’d suddenly inherited a private detective agency from their mutual dead ex-husband) guns along with a bizarre eagerness to use them. I bailed after a week of deadly dull story meetings and went off to run MIKE HAMMER (which also was funny, dammit, although very few people knew).

So that’s why the pilot was buried, why the two supporting characters you liked – Jeannine and Bronsky, both fabulously, uh, funny – vanished, and I believe, also why there hasn’t been and should never be a DVD with commentary – almost everyone involved other than the two stars is dead, and those of us who remain have very little good to say about it.

Oh, and it’s also why my “favorite episode to work on” is whatever episode was in progress when I left.

Aren’t you glad you asked?

A quick Q & A to cleanse our palates of the bile from the first answer, from Unknown:

How much description is good for narrative lines?  My script writing mentor is down on too much use of description and sentences that explain how character is reacting to action.  Other scripts such as Sleepy Hollow pilot was so full of description that it was hard to follow.   Your opinion? Is it matter of style or is there unspoken rules on this? Seems to be several schools of thought on this.

From LB:

The first rule of writing anything is that there are no rules. I never regard myself as someone teaching screenwriting. I’m an experienced writer holding workshops for less experienced writers and hoping that by expressing my opinion of what the other writers have put on the page they’ll gain insight into what works and what doesn’t and teach themselves how to create more effective – as in emotionally involving – stories, teleplays, etc.

Over the years, I’ve learned to walk a very fine line with description.

I try to set the scene, as it were (I always wanted to use that “as it were phrase” about something!) so that the various departments – location, props, clothing, and all that kind of thing – know what they have to prepare, and also so whomever is reading my script between phone calls knows where this moment of the story is taking place, what characters are involved in it, and what’s going on.

I also describe major action when it’s called for, or when the scene won’t work without certain things happening.

But I never come and say what any character is supposed to be feeling, or include any description of stage business or of how any line should be spoken. I have two reasons for this:

  • A well-written scene that is emotionally true will convey the characters’ feeling and attitudes to both the reader and the actor via the language and the context. It’s all about what the characters want, what they say…and what they don’t say.
  • Good actors come up with their own business and attitude, and most of the time what they give us is not only totally unexpected by even the best writer but also much more effective than anything we could have put on the page. And bad actors, well, they’re going to screw it up anyway, no matter what you “suggest” they do, so the hell with it.

A thought on the SLEEPY HOLLOW pilot. It was, after all, a pilot. That means it had to be more fully written than a script for an already established series because it had to do everything it could to bring the concept alive for the executives, the actors, and everyone involved in the production. A more novelistic approach is common to pilots…but don’t go overboard, and whatever you do, don’t try to inflict any kind of fancy writing style on the readers. That way lies – well, failure, actually.

And we all deserve the very best chance we can get to succeed, yeah?

Thanks for the questions. I’ll do my best to get to the rest of them in what I’m going to euphemistically call “a timely manner.”