Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With Marc Zicree, Part 1

A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!

by Kelly Jo Brick

Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence, hard work and not giving up.

Drive, focus and a desire to learn from those he admired led Marc Zicree on a journey that took him from animation to sci-fi and writing hundreds of hours of television for shows including STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, SLIDERS, BABYLON 5, HE-MAN and SMURFS. He’s also a TWILIGHT ZONE expert, writing The Twilight Zone Companion and is a bestselling novelist. He and his wife, Elaine, run The Table, a weekly gathering where they dedicate themselves to supporting and mentoring other industry professionals. He currently is writing, directing and producing the science fiction feature SPACE COMMAND starring Doug Jones, Armin Shimerman and Mira Furlan.

HOW AND WHEN DID YOU FIRST KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?

I started reading science fiction when I was very, very small. The first favorite book I remember was Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein when I was seven. I heard Ray Bradbury speak at a library when I was ten and I think that might have really planted the seed because at that talk Ray said, “Ideally your life and your work and your art should all come from the same place.” So that was very important to me.

STAR TREK debuted when I was around ten and really was it for me. I got to go on the set and watch them shoot the final episode, “Turnabout Intruder.” Then I read The Making of Star Trek when I was thirteen. That was the first book on how TV shows were made. I think that’s where I really started to think I wanted to be a writer/producer working in television.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN ENTERAINMENT?

The first short story I sold was when I was 19. I went to the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, which was the leading science fiction writing workshop in the country. It was put on at Michigan State University during the summer. Twenty-five students would live in the dorms and each week a famous science fiction writer would come and live with you.

We’d write like crazy and critique each other. It was a real pressure cooker. Two of the students from that year became major writers, Robert Crais, who became a mystery writer and Kim Stanley Robinson, who became a top science fiction writer.

The six science fiction writers brought in were Joe Haldeman, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Kate Wilhelm, Damon Knight and Gene Wolfe. They were all very famous science fiction writers at that point.

Damon was editing an anthology and he said to us, “If you’ve got a story in your trunk that you brought with you, I’d like to read it.” So I had written a satire in the first English class I took at UCLA. That’s just when the President had given a talk at Disney World and I had this idea that if they swapped him out with the robot President they had there in the Hall of Presidents, Disney would be running the country. I was paid $50 for that short story.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB WRITING FOR TELEVISION?

Theodore Sturgeon, who was a very famous science fiction writer who had written for STAR TREK, taught an adult education class at UCLA and even though as an undergrad I was forbidden from taking adult education, I said well, screw that, I’m not going to miss this opportunity. He was one of my heroes. I took that class and he became one of my mentors and his teaching assistant was a young writer named Michael Reaves. Michael and I became friends.

Michael was writing animation and I had never really particularly wanted to write animation, but I wanted to get into television. Michael asked me if I’d like to write an animation script with him. He had already broken into television. He was writing all of the episodes of an animated series on NBC called SPACE STARS which starred Space Ghost and so I wrote an episode with him and it went well and then SMURFS was just starting up, so I wrote an episode of SMURFS with Michael. Then it was very clear I could write these on my own. So I started writing for SMURFS and HE-MAN and SUPER FRIENDS.

HOW DID YOU TRANSITION FROM ANIMATION TO LIVE ACTION?

I knew that I’d have to create a sample. An animation script would not serve me to get hired in live action, so I could earn enough in 3 months to make about $100,000 and that was enough for me to live on for a year. I told all my animation bosses that as of a certain date I would not be available to write on assignment, because I would be writing my live action spec. They said, fine, fine, fine. Of course that day came and they started offering me jobs and in two days I had to turn down $200,000 worth of work, which ruins your writing day.

I went to UCLA where they couldn’t reach me, because this was before cell phones and I would write all day and then call in for my messages. I wrote a spec live action feature called PIECE OF CAKE and that sold, although it never got made. Then that was a writing sample that NBC read. They liked it and hired me to write a pilot for a TV series based on Choose Your Own Adventure, which was a very successful series of books. They sent me to Thailand to research it and then we went to Thailand to shoot it and it aired. I was off and running, so then after that I got hired to story edit FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES.

WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE SHOW TO WORK ON?

I really liked writing SLIDERS because we were tasked with reinventing the show after Fox drove it into the ground and SYFY picked it up for a fourth season. It was very fun to take something that had a great concept and design a season where it would deliver on that concept. So I wrote an episode called “World Killer” that really demonstrated what I thought the show could be and it came out very, very well. I was really pleased with it.

Part 2, in which Marc Zicree shares advice on taking meetings, getting on a writing staff and how crowdfunding can allow you to take control of your career, is HERE. Squee!


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.

Frank Spotnitz on Creating Complex TV Series

frank spotnitzFrank Spotnitz
(photo by Glen Golightly)

by Kelly Jo Brick

The Writers Guild Foundation recently hosted an evening with Frank Spotnitz as he shared his experiences and insights from his time writing for a variety of TV series including THE X-FILES, HUNTED, STRIKE BACK, ROBBERY HOMICIDE DIVISION as well as taking us into the world of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, an Amazon series he has written, executive produced and developed. TVWriter.com’s Contributing Editor, Kelly Jo Brick, was there to bring you highlights from the event.

ADVICE FOR WRITERS IN THE EARLY STAGES OF THEIR CAREER

My advice would be to have faith in themselves, to not get discouraged, to keep working hard. To know that you are a writer whether anybody’s paying you to write or not. And to be patient because it takes time to get your craft down. The only way to do it is to keep at it.

HOW HE GOT INTO WRITING

I think if you’re a writer there’s something wrong and I say that in the nicest possible way. Something has happened that is not good. It’s made you decide you should spend a long section of your life alone in a room staring at a screen. Why would you do that? There were some things that were not terribly satisfying in my life and part of that was moving around a lot as a child, which I think forced me to be sort of self-sufficient and it’s probably one of the reasons why I lived in my own head a lot. And I had parents who didn’t supervise my television watching.  So I watched thousands of hours, I watched everything.

HOW HE GOT HIS JOB ON THE X-FILES

I moved from Paris back to L.A. to go to film school. Before I started AFI, I was invited to join this book group and in this group were some really interesting people. One of them wrote TV movies for Disney and his name was Chris Carter. So I was in this book group for about two years. We’d meet every few months, read classic books and talk about them over dinner. Chris was a really nice guy, really smart. Then the book group came to an end. I finished film school and I’m watching TV one Friday night and oh, it’s THE X-FILES and Chris Carter, the guy from my book group had written the show. This is pretty good, so I kept watching.

Then toward the end of the first season, a friend of mine, who I’d known since I was ten years old, who also moved out here to be a writer, called me and said, “Frank, don’t you know that guy, Chris Carter?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, I’d like to write some episodes of THE X-FILES, could you call him for me and see if he’d hear my ideas?” Wow, this was really awkward. I’d never even called him to say congratulations on the show. I’m gonna call and ask a favor for a friend? But I had known him since I was ten. So I called. Chris takes my call and he goes, “Nah, I won’t hear your friend’s idea, but if you have an idea.”

It was easy to come up with ideas. I had watched every episode. So I go in, I thought it would just be him, and it was him and two or three other producers, rather intimidating. I pitched these three ideas and he shot them all down. So I left with my tail between my legs. Then like six weeks later, he calls me and says, “I didn’t buy any of your ideas, but they were all good. I’m losing two of my writers, how would you like to come on staff?”

That’s how it happened. I had not written for television, I was just out of film school, completely unqualified, replacing Glen Morgan and Jim Wong. Nothing could be more ridiculous. But I did have an immediate connection to the show and he was the kind of boss who gave you far more responsibility than he should have. So literally on the third day I was there, he sent me to the editing room to fix an episode. The episode was not working, so Frank, you go in and fix it. You’re out of film school. You’ve never worked on a television show before, go in there and fix it. Then he did the same thing, there’s a sound mix, I want you to go in and supervise it. Oh, okay. Somehow I stumbled through and I rose. I was Staff Writer then I was Executive Producer after three years.

WHAT HE LEARNED WORKING ON THE X-FILES

You can never be smart enough. The audience is always smarter than you. No matter how smart you think you are, they’re smarter than you. You can never be ambitious enough. You’d see writers who would come in, and I probably was guilty of it myself once or twice, not often though, and go, “Well, this will be a good episode. This will be good.” And if you say that, it’s going to suck.

Because you can’t aim for the middle and expect to reach the middle. Every time you write an episode, you gotta go, “This is going to be the greatest episode of television ever.” Also, the harder you apply yourself to something, the more energy you have to keep working hard. The moment you go, well, that’s good enough, I’ll stop there. The converse is true.

HOW MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE CAME TO HIM

I had known David Zucker, who is the head of Scott Free’s television arm in Los Angeles, for a long time. I had written another pilot for him that didn’t go. He would come to London and we’d always have lunch. One day he said, “We’ve been trying to make MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE for years. We just struck out with the BBC and now Syfy wants to try. Would you take a crack at it?” HUNTED had just been cancelled so I said yeah. I love that book. I read it in college. We made the deal and I’m going to read this book again. Then I read it again and the book is not a television series. I said to myself, “What am I going to do?”

I asked to see some of the other versions of the script. Good writers, but they completely ignored the book. I realized okay, I’m not going to make exactly the book. So I thought, what’s this book about. What’s he trying to say? What are the central ideas in this book? How can I do a TV narrative that is true to his ideas? His ideas are mind blowing and difficult and complex, but that’s what makes it great. I took a lot of the characters. I added characters, but I was very deliberate and conscious of why I was changing it and just praying people wouldn’t hate me for the changes.

HOW DID HE MAP OUT THE STORY, ESPECIALLY GIVEN THAT PEOPLE MAY BE BINGE-VIEWING IT?

I was very aware that there would be a lot of people to watch it in a day, a weekend or a week and that changes your strategy. When you do episodic television and there’s a week between episodes, there’s a lot of repeating. If you were to do that in a streaming environment, it would be really irritating. So it felt to me like a more novelistic narrative. So in season two, it’s nothing like season one. It’s not the form that we know for TV. It’s like a novel where yes, the characters’ emotional lives absolutely are continuing, but the narrative is not a repeat. You gotta keep going forward and be fearless. It’s a huge canvas. You have a whole world to tell stories in and we just barely got a glimpse of it in season one.

The Writers Guild Foundation regularly hosts events that celebrate the craft and voices of film and television writers. To find out more about upcoming events, go to wgfoundation.org.


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.

Something CLANDESTINE from SyFy

Whoa, do you know how long it took us to come up with that headline? A little applause, please? Pretty please…? Anyway:

Calero and Stashwick writing Clandestine pilot for Syfy (ComicsBeat)

While you often see comics getting optioned for film or TV, you don’t usually see the creators of the comic involved in working on that project for film or TV. So here’s an exception: Dennis Calero and Todd Stashwick are writing a sci-fi pilot called Clandestine for Syfy. Calero is best known as an artist on countless comics from COWBOYS & ALIENS to X-MEN NOIR. Stashwick is best known as a actor on things from Heroes to The Riches. The two met on the set of Heroes, when Calero was doing art for the show and collaborated on the webcomic Devil Inside, which was optioned by Syfy and eventually led to them being assigned to write the pilot for this entirely new project.

The story was described as “What if Han Solo had to pretend to be Captain Kirk?” by Calero in a phone conversation. If that logline doesn’t grab you, it’s basically about some space-faring ne’er’do-wells who have to pretend they are in charge of a ship in an intergalactic fleet.

Calero further noted that he had realized that there was more opportunity to write in TV than film and so had concentrated his efforts in that direction as a way to expand his career. And now he’s writing a TV show. Good work on that. He also has a mysterious project with Stephen King in the works, Variety notes, so we’d say Calero’s career path is doing very well.

Another concept that sounds so much like FIREFLY that it makes us want to…cryyyy…

munchman: M. Night Shyamalan Bringing His Patented Incoherence to TV

And Marti Noxon’s going to fix it! (We hope.)

M. Night Shyamalan Jumping Into Scripted TV With Syfy Project (Exclusive) – by Philiana NG

Syfy is getting into business with feature filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan.

The cable network has given a put-pilot commitment to a project from Shyamalan and Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Marti Noxon titled Proof, marking his first foray into scripted television, The Hollywood Reporter has learned exclusively.

Shyamalan, who made his mark with The Sixth Sense,would direct the Universal Cable Productions project.

Proof centers on the son of a billionaire tech genius who offers a large reward for anyone who can find proof of life after death following the tragic accident and sudden passing of his parents.

Shyamalan and Noxon will co-write the project and serve as EPs. Ashwin Rajan, of Shyamalan’s Blinding Eagle, will also serve as an exec producer.

Read it all

TVWriter™ predicts:

  1. The original script will suck because it will lack both characterization and logic
  2. The revised script will suck even more because Shyamalan won’t let Noxon add any characterization or logic and, in a fit of ego, will remove whatever was there before
  3. The pilot will cause unintended laughter every time it’s aired
  4. The pilot will be aired about 8000 times because the show will go to series no matter how bad it is, which means we’ll all have permanent smiles
  5. The series will be cancelled/abandoned/whatever before the first season can officially end
  6. Shyamalan will immediately go to work on another project for which he will be paid more money and will screw that one up too

Remember, boys and girls, you read it here first.

Syfy’s DEFIANCE Started Shooting Yesterday

 

Too video gamey looking for TV?

The good news, as described by Syfy and its production partner, Trion Worlds:

 Defiance is the first-ever convergence of television and Massive Multiplayer Online gaming, featuring an interconnected world and storylines that will co-exist throughout a scripted drama series and a multiplatform MMO shooter. Both the series and the game will debut simultaneously in April 2013.

Set in the near future, Defiance introduces an exotically transformed planet Earth, its landscapes permanently altered following the sudden – and tumultuous – arrival of seven unique alien races. In this somewhat unknown and unpredictable landscape, the richly diverse, newly-formed civilization of humans and aliens must learn to co-exist peacefully. Each week, viewers will follow an immersive character drama set in the boom-town of Defiance, which sits atop the ruins of St. Louis, MO, while in the game, players will adventure in the new frontier of the San Francisco Bay area. The dramatic tapestry of the series and the intense action of the game will exist in a single universe where their respective narratives will inform one another and evolve together into one overall story.

The series is executive produced by Kevin Murphy (Desperate Housewives, Caprica; Hellcats) & Michael Taylor (Battlestar Galactica). Kevin Murphy serves as showrunner.

The not-so-good news, also as described by Syfy and Trion Worlds:

 Defiance will commence series production in Toronto, ON starting July 24

An unprecedented partnership between Syfy and Trion Worlds, Defiance is the first-ever convergence of television and Massive Multiplayer Online gaming, featuring an interconnected world and storylines that will co-exist throughout a scripted drama series and a multiplatform MMO shooter. Both the series and the game will debut simultaneously in April 2013.

Don’t get us wrong. We’re as pro-Canada as U.S. citizens can get. (Hell, LB lives an hour from the border and takes his wife on wild, carefree outings on Victoria Island every chance he gets.) But let’s be honest here. Canadian productions way too often have this way too, well, cheesy “Look! We’re saving money! Yay!” kind of look.

And then there’s this MMPG aspect. Do you know how extraordinarily complicated that is? Blizzard’s been doing it for centuries, and Diablo 3 is still all screwed up. Our prediction: No way will DEFIANCE be able to truly integrate TV and online elements. No matter how much they want to. It’ll turn out as bogus as a Chinese Apple Store. You’ll see.

Which will be a shame because, conceptually, this particular combo-pak is killer!

Too video gamey looking for TV!