How TV writers' personal lives save troubled scripts
Empty"I'm afraid of what's going to happen when you turn off the lights."
That single sentence would provide the solution to a big problem for Matthew Weiner.
When the "Mad Men" creator was working on the script for his Emmy-nominated episode "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" (co-written with Robin Veith), he realized that the first draft, while packed with memorable moments -- including a drunken office party that leads to a lawnmower accident that mutilates a man's foot -- was missing something crucial: A greater sense of meaning for the drama.
It was Weiner's wife, Linda, who provided one by suggesting that Don Draper's young daughter, Sally, utter a line that made the whole episode a metaphor for the characters' "fear, or expectation, of the unknown," as Weiner puts it.
If only all predicaments could be solved with so few words.
Most Emmy-nominated writers acknowledge they face endless challenges creating their best work. "In both (comedy and drama) you want to get inside the heads of your characters," says Rolin Jones, a former writer on "Weeds," and a nominee for his grief-soaked "Friday Night Lights" episode "The Son." "You want them to behave believably within the architecture of their particular universe."
For Jones, whose script focused on the complex emotions experienced by former football star Matt Saracen after the death of his estranged father, that meant drawing on his own very personal experience. "I'm a writer with some daddy issues," Jones says. "Basically (in this episode) I got to kill my dad. I thought, 'I can get into this.' I wrote in the back of my house for a week and a half and poured myself into it."
Even with such heavy material, the scribe managed to incorporate moments of levity into the episode (like a booze-fueled exchange between Matt and his former teammates on the football field), which other writers agree is key.
"When I see a drama that doesn't have any comedy in it, it's a failure to me," Weiner says. "In the great dramas, there are plenty of funny moments."
And vice versa.
"That quotient of real feeling in the show is one of the hardest parts of our job," says showrunner Christopher Lloyd, whose pilot script for "Modern Family," which he co-wrote with Steve Levitan, is a contender for writing in a comedy series. "It's also one of the most rewarding. The trick is not to lay the emotion on too thick or it becomes too gooey."
To avoid that, the writers infuse their scripts with their own domestic war stories. Lloyd, for one, uses his wife as inspiration for the compassionate character of Cameron (Emmy nominee Eric Stonestreet). Like him, she's been known to take in lost souls and has even thrown a wedding in their home for near strangers.
And "Modern's" upcoming season will include more situations based on the writers' clans.
"Everybody's job over hiatus was to go have bizarre-yet-touching experiences with their families that we can then exploit for our own greedy purposes on television," Lloyd quips.
No writing challenge last season, however, matched that of crafting the highly anticipated finale of "Lost."
Since locking in an end date in 2007, showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse had been admirably devoted to executing their vision for what they'd long planned to be the show's final images of another plane taking off as dying hero Jack's eyes closed. "We were kind of married to each other, without certain benefits," Cuse cracks of their frequent 80-hour work weeks.
Still, their Emmy-nominated script for "The End" wouldn't have been complete without other staffers' ideas.
"Certain writers had greater affinities for different characters," Lindelof says. "Someone would say, 'Hey, I don't feel like Ben (Michael Emerson) is getting his due in this episode. What's his POV?' For a show that had so many characters who needed voices, we needed writers who were speaking on their behalf."
Lindelof and Cuse agree that they left "Lost" having found something very valuable.
Says Cuse, "We discovered that the creative process strangely works better when you're under pressure and under assault."