Question and Answer Session (Part I)

from Screenwriting Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell

Photo of Stephen J. Cannell
MODERATOR: Claire E. White
SPEAKER: Stephen J. Cannell

MODERATOR Good Morning everyone and welcome to the Stephen J. Cannell Online Writing Seminar!

MODERATOR Good morning Stephen, and welcome! Our first question is How did you get your start writing for television and how did you perfect your craft?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL Good morning! I'm very excited to be doing this online seminar. I want to thank everybody for being here, and for agreeing to let me change the time. I had a personal situation that needed to be dealt with and this makes it much more convenient for me. I started writing for television shortly after college, however I didn't sell anything for over five years.

During this time I held down a regular job working for my father. I would get home at 5:30, my wife would hold dinner and I would write till 10:30. I did this every day, Monday through Friday. A full day on Saturday and a half day on Sunday. My wife puts up with a lot, as you can see. At this time I had no agent and no way to submit my material.

I mention this because I know this problem confronts many of you. You must not be defeated by this "Catch 22". Nobody will read your material unless submitted by and agent. No agent will represent you unless you have already sold something.

This hopeless circle will eventually be penetrated. You just have to continue working. (We can discuss how to break through in a minute) After five years, I finally got an agent and began to submit through her. I would tell her what shows I wanted to write for, and she would try and book appointments for me. However, it was very difficult for her to get anybody to read or meet with me. Because I had no credits.

What I tried to do was keep her spirits high in the midst of all this failure. Instead of criticizing her and complaining about my lack of assignments, I went the other way. I would take her to lunch and tell her how much I appreciated the efforts that she was making on my behalf. I explained that I understood how difficult it was for her to find work for me and that I was just grateful that she was making such an effort on my behalf. The result of this was that she stayed energized about my career and wanted desperately to book meetings for me.

Most writers that I knew at the time constantly complained that their agent wouldn't return their phone calls or get them work. They used to say they were about to change agents. I would ask them what they told their agent when they spoke. The writer invariably replied, "I told them the truth; I need work, I can't pay my bills, my kids need new clothes, etc." I used to think no wonder your agent doesn't return your calls. Who wants a phone call like that? I mention this because I really believe that in all professional relationships you must maintain a positive POV not a negative one.

After about a year of meetings set up by my agent I began to sell. It is interesting to note that in the beginning she could only get me one or two meetings a year and very quickly I began to sell every time I went on an interview. The way I accomplished this was when she told me she could set up an appointment I would ask her not to do it for a week or ten days. She would say, "Why? They'll see you tomorrow!" I would answer that I needed ten days to get ready.

I would then devote 8 hours a day to my writing, (I had to quit my job). Working on story ideas for the meeting. I would come up with five or six ideas that I had never seen before and I would develop them completely. All three acts, all scenes in each act worked out. (Even though television is written in four acts, the generic structure is three) Then I would come up with five or six "springboards". A springboard is an idea with a solution, no second act: a setup and a conclusion.

Then I would come up with five or six "what ifs". A what if is simply what it sounds like, what if Rockford's old girlfriend that he used to love and wanted to marry is suddenly wanted for murder? No solution, just an idea. Then I would go in a week or ten days after the meeting had been set and pitch these ideas, starting with the fully worked out plots and failing a victory, end up with my what ifs. I never failed to get an assignment. I was too damn prepared. There was no way I was going to leave that room without a contract.

Once I went through my whole list of stories and the producer refused them all for a variety of reasons, e.g., it's in development, we did it last year, we're not doing shows like that, etc. When I was finished and turned to leave thinking I had completely failed the producer stops me at the door. "By the way, you've got an assignment." "Why?" I replied, "You didn't like any of my stories." "Because in thirty years of this business, I have never had a writer come to a meeting this prepared and now I want to find out how you tick." This is very important information. I did not know what my competition was doing. I assumed that they were all as prepared as I was. The fact is, none of them were. They were coming in with half-baked ideas: maybe one or two concepts, not developed at all.

Once I became a producer and saw the quality of the pitches coming back at me I was shocked. No wonder I had done so well. Shortly after that I was put under contract at Universal as a story editor. Then I became a writer/producer/creator and I was on my way. This is a long-winded response to your question, but I believe it is one of the most important pieces of information that I can impart regarding the sell.

MODERATOR You have discussed listening to real people in order to create believable dialogue. However, isn't it body language that actually underscores the believability of dialogue in writing novels as well as screenplays?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL Since, as a writer, you have no control over the actors' body language, forget about it. Your script has to work on paper. By the way, don't write screenplays where under each character slug you put some description as to how you want the line read. For instance, Dave, (sarcastically) "Of course that's what I mean." Actors and directors HATE this. All view it as insulting. The only time I ever see a dialogue plug is if it is possible that the line will be misunderstood. Also, it is important along these same lines, when you are writing not to try and be the director. Don't fill your scripts with a thousand shot angles. (Another neophyte mistake) Write in master scenes: INT RESTAURANT DAY. A run down diner filled with seedy people. Then, do your dialogue and if it is important that some piece of physical action occur, just write it as description. (E.g., He reaches into his pocket, removes the envelope and lays it on the table.) Don't write: CLOSE SHOT his hand as it reaches into his pocket. New slug, MEDIUM CROSSING SHOT Table as he moves the envelope slowly from his pocket. EXTREME CLOSE UP THE ENVELOPE as it is pushed into frame. You'd be surprised how often writers do this.

Again, it infuriates directors and balloons page counts so the production department will tend to underschedule the day, which wastes money.

MODERATOR When you are writing a teleplay, do you have the real locations in mind before you start or do you use a location manager to find them? For example, in the A Team pilot, where did you find the "church tower with a huge cast iron bell" and the old Mexican town?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL Unless the project is location specific, like the Congress of the United States of America where you know what you're writing for, I make everything up in my head. And then the director and location manager will find something close to what I've written. Often they will improve on my idea and bring back photos and ask me to approve the change. The cast iron bell and church tower, they found. There must be thousands of those in Mexico.

MODERATOR Could you please give us some details of how a production company works and who the major players are on a TV show?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL In television, the executive producer/writer is in charge of the overall production. The studio will control budget and the executive producer is responsible to the studio that employs him to make the show for the pattern budget. The studio and the executive producer are responsible to the network to supply episodes that live up to the creative promise of the pilot.

Under the executive producer, there are usually several writer-producers. They write episodes and work with the production manager (called a UPN) to produce the show on budget.

The script goes to actors and if they have complaints or problems, the writer-producer makes adjustments, as necessary. He or she also rewrites the script for the board. A board is a physical piece of equipment that contains hundreds of cardboard strips. Each strip represents a scene. The director, the asst. director and the UPN arrange these scenes or strips on the board forming a production schedule of usually 7-10 days, depending on how the show is budgeted. The prepping director spends 7-10 days in prep casting, selecting locations, solving production problems, designing the shots and blocking on paper.

After the director who is shooting ahead of him finishes show one, the prepping director for show two, now goes to the set and takes over the shooting company and shoots his show in 7-10 days, while director three begins his prep. And that's the way it works for 22 episodes without break.

The shooting company is divided up into departments -- hair & makeup, wardrobe, props, location, transportation, camera, electrical, etc. Each of these departments has a key who is in charge of his/her individual crew. It's all very organized and unionized. I hope that answers your question.

MODERATOR Does your company respond to freelancers' query letters pitching TV movies or feature films? (Assuming it is submitted properly with self-addressed stamped envelopes, proper format etc.?)

STEPHEN J. CANNELL I have sold my production company and no longer am in the business of developing ideas for television, except perhaps for ideas that I write myself. I don't have a feature film operation. I am selling my movie ideas to the major studios.

MODERATOR> If the format is for 3 Act structure, how do you change the style to fit in commercials for a 4 act show?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL Good question. All dramas are generic three-act structures. Use the structure I put in the preliminary material (lecture). Television series, however, are broken into 4 acts -- often with a teaser or a tag included, making 5 commercial breaks.

This is obviously because networks need to sell products. What I usually do is write a long first act, a third of the story. My first acts will often go 20 minutes on the air. My second act, taking me to the network break at the 1/2 hour is usually act two which is a little shorter than act one. Act three, which is the solution of the problem, I will break into two parts ... creating a moment of jeopardy at the end of act three before starting act four. Sometimes this changes depending on the story I'm telling. But it is still a three-act structure.

MODERATOR What does the term "hold for a beat" signify? As a measurement of time, is that so many seconds? How many?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL It simply indicates to an actor that I intend to pause. It is not necessary to do that. I find that I tend to do it too much. Sometimes when I'm writing and I'm pausing myself for my next thought, I'll inadvertently stick that in. I try to pull them out when I'm editing. Some of them escape. There is an advantage to using that in the event that you don't want the dialogue to follow abruptly. It's really in the actors'/directors' hands -- it's as long as they want it to be -- or sometimes not at all.

Click Here to go to Part II of the Question and Answer Session.

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