Category Archives: The Work

Rest in peace


February 1, 2018 – The file drawer is chock full of dead TV and feature scripts, which is why I refer to it as “the morgue.” While most of these generated income during the development and writing process, they are now virtually worthless. Still, I just can’t seem to part with my dearly departed babies, even knowing that I’ll never disturb their slumber. The closest I’ve come to trying to resurrect any of them is a reference in my novel, City of Whores, to a pilot called Walking Trouble being developed by one of the characters. Walking Trouble was, in fact, my very first pilot, written in the early ’90s under a deal with Columbia-TriStar Television for ABC about a busybody named Tally who moves back in with her flamboyant former actress mother Sadiebeth in a Los Angeles neighborhood in decline. In the book, my fictional aging movie star Lillian Sinclair is attached to play the zany mom. In reality, Anne Bancroft read the script and wanted the role–but that wasn’t enough to get it made. I still marvel at that particular “what might have been.” That said, I’m well aware that by today’s market standards, the script is woefully dated and quaint.

The year Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery was all the rage, every network was developing their own TV version. Mine was called Driving Me Crazy and centered on a bored housewife desperate to help her private investigator husband solve his cases. In other words, Lucy wants to be a detective until ABC agreed with her husband that she shouldn’t. Can’t say as I blame them. The word I’d use to describe the script today would be “cute.”

And then there was a pilot called Stuff Happens which I sold to Fox as an hour long family dramedy about divorcing parents as seen through the eyes of their snarky 13-year-old son. You know, a mashup of The Wonder Years and Kramer vs. Kramer. The gimmick in the first draft was that the kid was addicted to watching old TV shows on Nickelodeon–in fact, used it as his escape from his warring parents and evil identical twin big sisters. At key moments in the story, he would have daydreams wherein he reinterpreted real family events as they might have been portrayed on any number of classic TV shows like The Brady Bunch or Family Affair or Gilligan’s Island. I was pretty pleased with the script that I handed into the network, and the network suits at Fox seemed pleased, too. The meeting began with me clicking my pen to write on my clean copy of Stuff Happens just as the head suit said, “You’ve probably noticed that none of us have a copy of your script with us.” I hadn’t, but confirmed this truth by a quick glance around the room. Uh-oh. “That’s because we don’t really have any notes for you. It’s a beautifully written piece, and the characters are so funny and real.” Naturally, I sensed a colossal “but” lurking just beneath the surface. And when it finally burst through gasping to be heard, well, let me just say it was doozy.

“We just feel like it’s missing that one thing… that one element that would Foxify it for our network.”

Here, I’m pretty sure I blinked and tried not to laugh. The guy had actually made up a word. Later in the same conversation, he added “Foxification” to the meeting’s vernacular. His suggestion for Foxifying my pilot? “It just needs something extra. You know, like a talking dog.

I didn’t add a talking dog, but I did drop the TV fantasies and replaced them with animated vignettes. That wasn’t Foxified enough to get a green light, so into the morgue it went.

Keeping Up With the Joneses was a half hour about a family of gypsies on the run from their tribe, conning the rich to give to the poor. That one wasn’t Foxy enough, either. Blessings in Disguise brought us a dysfunctional family that has to go into the Witness Protection Program after the father has a front row seat to a mob execution. Another failure at proper Foxishness.

Dicks  was written with Jeff Kline and was about two slacker-types (remember when “slacker” was all the rage?) who decide to become private investigators. This one cleared the first hurdle with Fox, and the Head Honcho there gave us the green light to hire a casting director so we could find the two leads. Production of the pilot was thus “cast contingent,” so Jeff and I along with our intrepid casting director sat through hours of auditions hunting for the right actors with the right chemistry to carry the show. As the search continued without success, the Head Honcho then decided we should have a table read despite the fact that we hadn’t found suitable leads. Our casting director called in favors from friends for the reading–including a generous and hilarious Lainie Kazan who agreed to play the waitress at House of Pies where our slacker dicks had their informal HQ. The reading went well, the script was funny, and when it was over, the Head Honcho killed the project because the two leads weren’t right. The two leads we all knew were just there for the table read. So that project got a tepid green light before abruptly turning red, and joined all the other dearly departeds in the morgue.

There they are resting in peace alongside their failed brethren: Heartland (couple trying to keep their family together in a conservative midwestern town after the husband/father comes out as gay) which was loved and summarily killed by the then WB network…

Free Ride (guy dies but wakes up as his 18-year-old self the day he left home to go to college at Playboy magazine’s number one party school of 1976, The University of Georgia)–a spec that was optioned by Fox and, you guessed it, fell short of the requisite Foxification…

Haints (young female artist inherits a haunted plantation in Georgia) which was ultimately passed on by the SyFy Channel…

And my most recent attempt, Triple Threats (three singer-dancer-actor sisters move to L.A. to pursue stardom after their mother dies, only to learn that their father is a career-challenged Prince-like rock star) which was shot down at NBC because I refused to make it dirtier (I’m not kidding).

And then there were two more scripts that were greenlit before they were redlit. Way back in 2001, I was fresh off several seasons of teen dramedies including The Wonder Years, Party of Five, and Time of Your Life. That resume caught the eyes of ABC and MGM, and I was hired to write a two-hour Sunday Movie Special Event and “back door” series pilot. The property? A sequel to the 1980 smash feature film Fame.

The studio even flew me to New York so that I could hang out with the students and faculty at the real Laguardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts. It was a fascinating and rewarding experience, and I put my heart and soul into  that script. September 11th had happened only two months prior, and the post-9/11 world of New York figured into my story. I wrote it as a valentine to the tenacity of the city and her citizens and a tribute to the healing powers of art. I had the thrill of working  with Michael Gore, the composer from the original film. The conceit for the sequel was that Coco (Irene Cara) had graduated from Laguardia and gone on to release a few big hit songs (“Fame” being one of them) and had a brief career in films until her behavioral and drug/alcohol problems got the better of her. Twenty years later, she’s desperate for a comeback, and agrees to be a “guest judge” for her alma mater’s annual auditions for new students. We even tracked down Irene Cara who agreed to reprise her role despite the fact that she couldn’t wrap her head around the character being 40 present day– basic math be damned! For me, as a still relatively young writer, the whole experience was heady and amazing. It really could have been Glee well ahead of Glee

Until it wasn’t. MGM and ABC were deadlocked over a budget. They also couldn’t agree on whether the film should be shot in New York City or Toronto and so… another corpse was added to the morgue.

Speaking of corpses, ABC also liked my adaptation of a terrifically trashy British soap set in the world of a high end hair salon. Cutting It was greenlit straight to series with the idea that it would be a cheap summer show–cheap because most of the action took place in one set. The plan was to use standing sets from daytime soaps for other locations. ABC was committed to the project, and proved it by ordering a script for episode two. Naturally, right about the time I finished it, I was informed they didn’t have money in their budget to produce the show after all. So once again I hit another green light/red light on the way to the morgue.

In my almost 30 years in the biz, only one of my pilots managed to avoid the morgue. It went to series and by the time it premiered, I’d been fired for trying to make it good. But that’s a story already told.

Today, despite my penchant for nostalgia, I’m fond of saying that Memory Lane is a dead-end street. And while I like to think I’ve learned something while clawing my way to the middle and leaving all these corpses in my path, I’m still in the ring pitching and hoping that one of my precious babies will thrive and grow into a series. In the interim, hey, let’s do lunch. Stay tuned…

 

And then it happened: My wholly biased review of The Wonder Years: The Complete Series on DVD

My first office on The Wonder Years circa 1989.

My first office on The Wonder Years circa 1989. Photo copyright the author.

January 19, 2015 – Life is a series of moments—some casual and small, others significant and profound. And sometimes, a tiny, passing and seemingly insignificant instant will turn out to be a seed that flourishes and forever alters the course of our lives. One such moment happened to me in February, 1988, when a friend from my then wife’s acting class, John Rocha, asked if I’d happened to catch a show that premiered after the Super Bowl the previous Sunday. I gave him my signature raised eyebrow that clearly said, “Why would I be watching the Super Bowl?” so he went on to tell me a bit about this hysterically funny and profoundly touching new series. It was the first time I’d ever heard of The Wonder Years, and, as fate would have it, certainly not the last. I’ve written about the exhilaration of getting my first professional television writing job before, but with the recent release of the entire series on DVD, I’d like to revisit a few omitted tidbits:

First, it almost didn’t happen at all. Let me rewind a bit…

On John’s recommendation, I tuned in for episode #2 entitled “Swingers” which was written and directed by the series’ creators, Neal Marlens and Carol Black. I was immediately smitten with the show’s universal appeal. In the episode, Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) and Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano) are hell-bent on getting a copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask after a particularly hilarious but Saharianly clinical and decidedly un-educational sex education class. And the thing is, I felt like I was watching my own childhood. Which was, of course, one of the secret’s of the show’s huge success. We were all Kevin Arnold, after all (or, in my case, Paul Pfeiffer).

The author looking his most Paul Pfeiffer-esque.

Yours truly looking my most Paul Pfeiffer-esque.

In the case of “Swingers,” the episode vividly evoked the burning curiosity, confusion, and pure, wanton lust of raging adolescent hormones. I remembered my own furtive excursions to the Magic Market where I’d try to peek at Playboy and Penthouse and Oui, only to be chased away by the watchful cashier. I recalled vividly when I finally got my hands on a copy of EYAWTKASBWATA after snooping through a neighbor’s nightstand (while babysitting their sleeping kids) and finally getting some informative and titillating answers—hey, I never said I was proud of it. The thing is, having been born just two years after Kevin Arnold, this show was a spot-on reflection of my own adolescence. For me, The Wonder Years was the proverbial love at first sight—the equivalent of that moment in the pilot when Kevin sees Winnie Cooper walking toward him at the bus stop wearing a miniskirt and go-go boots.

As that too-short first season (only six episodes) went on, the show took up permanent residence in my heart, and about half-way through season two, I had the temerity to try my hand at writing an episode on spec. It was inspired by a long ago family vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when I was fourteen or so and met a beautiful blonde girl a year my senior while blissfully raft-surfing in the ocean in those pre-Jaws days.

The actual photobooth picture that inspired "Summer Song." And yes, the tan is real. Photo (c) the author.

The actual photobooth picture that inspired “Summer Song.” And yes, the tan is real. Photo copyright the author.

Our forty-eight hours together were a hokey movie montage complete with a soundtrack by Seals & Croft, four silly poses in a photobooth, arcade games, amusement park rides, and the gift of a frog made entirely out of seashells. We fell madly, passionately, head-over-flip-flops, and I had my first ever French kiss when we made out on the porch of her motel the night before she and her family returned home. I ached horribly the entire, rainy drive home, and knew that someday, somehow, we’d be together again and for all eternity. She sent me a few perfumed letters over the next year or so, and then, as these summer romances go, vanished from my life forever. Until, that is, I resurrected that glorious angst in “Summer Song,” my episode which was named after a Chad & Jeremy song. In it, Kevin meets a beautiful blonde girl on the beach (played by Holly Sampson who went on to a career in porn of all things)—an older woman, no less—and ultimately shares a tender kiss with her under the boardwalk.

Fred Savage and Holly Sampson recreate that magical summer of 1973. Photo (c) the author.

Fred Savage and Holly Sampson recreate my magical summer of 1973. Photo copyright the author.

The thing is, I thought my script didn’t measure up to the quality of the show. The Wonder Years was one of the best written series on TV—who the heck was I to think my work would be good enough? My incredible wife at the time, Cayce Callaway, vehemently disagreed and famously vowed that if I didn’t send the script to Sylvia Hirsch (my then agent at Preferred Artists in Encino), then she would. So I mailed it off, begrudgingly enough, and was subsequently shocked when, a few weeks later, Sylvia (rest her soul) called to tell me that the producers had actually liked it and wanted me to come in and pitch.

The rest, as they say, is my-story.

I joined The Wonder Years as a staff writer at the beginning of season three, and left some three years later just prior to the show’s final season. In that time, I was fortunate enough to have a writing credit on seventeen episodes—some which I’m still really proud of, and others, well, not so much. I did a lot of writing on the show, both credited and uncredited, and it was the best boot camp an aspiring television writer could ask for. After I resigned and moved on, I never really looked back, but in the ensuing years the question I was most often asked was: “When’s it coming out on ‘home video?’/DVD?” And I’d always explain that I had no idea because all of that great music that helped make the show what it was in its initial run had to be re-licensed which was a daunting and nearly impossible task. You see, as the 1980s became the 1990s, no one envisioned a day when people might want to actually own an entire television series on bulky VHS cassettes, so the music was initially licensed for network broadcast, reruns and, I’m guessing, syndication. I don’t know if the latter had the original music or not because the handful of times I tried to watch an episode on ION or wherever, I couldn’t get through more than a few minutes because they’d been savagely butchered to make room for more commercials. It’s still astonishing to me that the original show had one—and I mean one—act break right in the middle. Two acts. One commercial break. Yes, those were simpler times.

Fred Savage reacting to the news that I was leaving the show's writing staff.

Fred Savage reacting to the news that I was leaving the show’s writing staff. Photo copyright the author.

And now Time-Life and StarVista Entertainment have finally accomplished the impossible. They have  released the entire series—all 115 episodes—on DVD with most of the original music. Apparently, some artists (I’m looking at you, Neil Young), either refused to license their tunes or maybe demanded astronomical payments. Wikipedia has a good list of all the music that was replaced along with the titles of their substitutions here, saying that the new DVD release retains 96% of the first-run music.

Which, I have to say, is far better than no DVD release at all. Though I’ll admit, the absence of Richie Haven’s cover of The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” from the episode “Heart of Darkness” made me die a little inside when I recently rewatched it. In one of my absolute favorite scenes from the show (oddly from one of my least favorite episodes), Winnie comes over to find Kevin and Paul sitting on the curb in front of his house as another school day lingers before stretching into dinner time. She’s wearing her cat-eye glasses, and Kevin and Paul tease her saying “You definitely look stupid in contacts” or some such, and it’s such a perfectly real, tiny, relatable moment in time you can almost believe it happened to you and not the characters on the show. The music was so perfect that I made sure to include the scene in a clip show that Mark Levin and I wrote and produced at the end of season four. Sadly, it’s been replaced in both episodes of the DVD release, but if I’m ever feeling especially hardcore, I can always bust out my VHS of the original broadcast. Being the antiquarian-contrarian that I am, I still have a working player connected to my TV. I may have to do the same with “Family Car” when I finally get to it. Hard to imagine that amazing montage with anything but Neil Young’s “Long May You Run.”

Full_Series-shotMusic quibbles aside, the rest of the release is simply superb. I’ve read online that some videophiles are disappointed in the image quality—but the show was originally filmed on 16mm and edited on BetaMax and was never intended to be shown at 1080dpi on a plasma flat screen. If you ask me, all things considered, it looks pretty damn good—certainly better than the episodes streaming on NetFlix (with nasty, bad music substitutions). The set is housed in a metal school locker with notebooks that hold the discs along with a yearbook with additional information about the series. The new release also contains hours and hours of delicious bonus material, all of which demonstrates that the folks who produced the set had a deep and abiding adoration for the show that shines through even in the packaging. The cast reunion and interviews are particularly charming, and I’m thrilled that my on camera interview was used throughout the fantastic featurettes, and that the producers of the DVD set gave me the last line of narration by making my full interview the final segment in the whole set.

The Wonder Years has assumed its rightful place among the greatest series in the history of television, and I still honestly have a hard time believing that I was blessed to have been one of its many contributors. Sure, I’m biased, deeply so, but that doesn’t change the truth that this is one of the best DVD releases I’ve ever come across, and if you’re even marginally a fan of the series, you won’t be disappointed. My connection to the show is rather profound and personal, and rewatching the episodes in order has been particularly poignant for me. While The Wonder Years initially evoked a universal nostalgia for the angst and innocence of youth, it has now taken on even more significance for me in that it perfectly enshrines the bittersweet beginning of my career, of a time when I shared all of my life-altering experiences with my dearest friend Cayce as we, too, grew up together and became adults.

So there you have it. The Wonder Years was truly a second adolescence for me, and with this gorgeous release of the show on DVD, I couldn’t ask for better home movies of that particular time and place in my life. Well done, Time-Life and StarVista, well done, indeed. Stay tuned…

You can purchase The Wonder Years: The Complete Series by clicking here.

You can purchase my 1950s Hollywood novel, City of Whores, by clicking here.

Let’s go to the hop!

TurnbullPostCoWSeptember 6, 2014 – Martin Turnbull is the author of the enormously successful Garden of Allah novels, which were recently optioned for film and television. If you love Hollywood and/or Southern California history, you’ll surely savor his books. Each in the series is set in a different era in the Golden Age of Hollywood, and his attention to detail coupled with his charming style seduce the reader into a wonderful world of movie make believe. I first encountered Martin’s enchanting website, MartinTurnbull.com, while Googling for images of the interior of the Mocambo nightclub which is featured in my book. Then I started following and “liking” his terrific Hollywood-centric posts on Facebook, and before I knew it, he posted the above on my City of Whores page. Shortly thereafter, we struck up a very entertaining correspondence, and he’s been enormously generous with his knowledge of the world of indie publishing. To that end, he invited me to participate in a Blog Hop, which sounded more like a very awkward dance than an opportunity to promote my work, until he explained. To participate, I’m to answer four questions here on my own blog, then link to any other writer friends who’d like to join in. Martin graciously offered to link to my blog from his, MartinTurnbull.wordpress, so let’s get to it:

1. What are you working on/writing? I’m currently dividing my creative focus between two projects. One is my bread and butter day job: ongoing revisions to my Southern Gothic ghost story TV pilot which was optioned by TriStar Television. The other is my as yet untitled second novel, which is very different from City of Whores. Yes, the protagonist works in Hollywood, but as a television writer this time, and he’s dealing with some life-altering issues rooted in having grown up in the South of the 1960s—a time when bigotry and prejudice were more or less accepted as the norm. It’s a more reflective piece than Whores, and only autobiographical in a few of the specific details.

2. How does your work/writing differ from others in its genre? For a time, I was “type cast” as a “family dramedy” and “youth oriented” writer. I used to joke that I’d spent most of my adult life firmly stuck in high school while toiling away on shows like The Wonder Years, Party of Five, and One Tree Hill. Fortunately, as I matured, new opportunities presented themselves and I had such fun on the series Ghost Whisperer and Revenge. But I can’t really say my work differed “from others in its genre” because a television writer by nature has to be adaptable to the voices of their showrunner. My ghost story pilot opens up some new terrain for me, and will allow me to finally work in the horror genre which I’ve adored ever since racing home after school to watch the original Dark Shadows (and no, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, I will never forgive you). In terms of my fiction, City of Whores is my debut novel, and while I say it’s about Hollywood in the 1950s, that’s just the high stakes and glamorous setting for an unconventional love story about one man’s journey toward redemption.

3. Why do you write what you do? Honestly, I write television because it’s usually gratifying, fun, and rewarding. I’ve always said that if you hate change, don’t go into TV because it’s a very nomadic lifestyle. I also crave instant gratification, and in television, sometimes what you’re writing today will be in front of the cameras as early as tomorrow, then all-prettied up and playing on your TV a very short while later. It’s also been an amazing training ground for developing characters, plot, and long story arcs. In fact, a season of a television show is rather like a novel in a series, each episode representing one chapter. With City of Whores, I mostly wanted to tell a dysfunctional love story. The fun part was setting it during the twilight of Tinseltown’s Golden Age, which allowed me to immerse myself in the Old Hollywood I’ve loved since falling under its spell as a child thanks to NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. For me, fiction writing is a form of time travel: things I never had a chance to experience—like the Mocambo or the 20th Century Fox back lot or the maiden voyage of the SS United States—could be brought to life through research and imagination. By putting my fictional characters in these extraordinary settings, I could live vicariously through them. As for why I’m writing my next novel, I can only quote the woman who penned my favorite book of all time: “Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself…It’s a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent.” – Harper Lee

4. How does your writing process work? Network television, where you’re usually writing and producing twenty-two episodes per season (which is really twenty-two forty-five minute films in ten months!) is exactly like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. Once the show starts production, that conveyor belt is rolling, and you only have a certain amount of time to make sure all those little gems are perfectly packaged. Some will be great, some you’ll stuff in your apron, and some you’ll eat. The process is fast and only seems to speed up as the season unfolds. There’s no time for writer’s block when you’re constantly running around with your hair on fire while feeding the ravenous beast. As for my fiction, I usually start by cleaning out a closet or some other task. Seriously. It isn’t about avoiding the work, it’s a chance to think about the story, the characters, and their world, without having to face that panic-enducing blinking cursor. I started Whores in 1994 as part of a writers’ group, and then put it away for many years while I was constantly working crazy hours on the various TV shows that have made up my career. But when I discovered those chapters and notes again—while cleaning out my file drawers, by the way—I realized that my characters and that world had been subconsciously percolating during all the ensuing years, so I eagerly dove back in. It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything, in no small part because it was so liberating. Gone were the voices in my head: no line producer screaming at me that there’s no way we could recreate the filming of a scene from the 1953 Barbara Stanwyck film Titanic; no actors arguing heatedly with me while refusing to say a crucial line of dialog; no director freaking out about the sheer number of scenes; no studio telling me my characters would have to travel on the Queen Mary because it’s right here in Long Beach. Fiction set my imagination free, and it was so exhilarating, I’m now an addict for life.

And that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Which brings us to…

One of the best things about working in television is the writers’ room. It’s my favorite part of the process—the camaraderie of other writers. Along the way, if you’re lucky, you even meet some keepers: fellow scribes who quickly become friends outside of the room and beyond the life of the show. For me, one of those keepers is the incredibly talented Ann Lewis Hamilton. Her delightful debut novel, Expecting, was just published in July. It’s simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly poignant and moving. I devoured it. So now, as part of this here Blog Hop thingy, hoppity hop on over to the her very entertaining blog for bibliophiles, MyBookClubForOne. Stay tuned…