Archive for the ‘ Russia ’ Category

It’s not about the kasha

When I was headwriting “Poor Anastasia” in Russia, I created a scene for an episode in which the core characters (the show’s anti-hero Korf, his best friend Repnin, and Anna, the beautiful serf both men were in love with) were eating breakfast.  I told the writer of the episode that the scene needed to be about the tension between Korf and Repnin, with Anna in the middle of their tension.  Repnin, who was in love with Anna, didn’t know she was a serf.  His best friend Korf did, and Anna was plotzing with anxiety as she wondered when and if Korf would reveal to Repnin the truth about who she really was.  (In 1862 St. Petersburg, it was not only illegal to fall in love with a serf but it could shatter Repnin’s love for her.)

Instead of the tension, subtext and anxiety, I got kasha.

My writer wrote the entire scene about Korf offering Repnin kasha, explaining it was excellent kasha.  Anna, who was eating the kasha, agreed, so Repnin helped himself and also agreed that the kasha was excellent.

That was the scene.

Now, maybe, the subtext got lost in translation, although to her credit, when I told the writer what I found missing from the scene, she went on to write other episodes with the subtext and tension and stakes I found missing in the “kasha” scene.

In counterpoint, when I was teaching at UCLA, one of my students, Mary, wrote a spec “Six Feet Under.”  In her script, two of the characters were in the middle of a fraught relationship that was going south fast.   Mary chose to illustrate the tension in their relationship by setting a scene in a restaurant with a table that rocked.  All one character could focus on was the rocking table, which was annoying the hell out of her, while the other character was trying to get her to focus on what was wrong in their relationship.  By the end of the scene, the character obsessed with the rocking table was shouting for the waiter to come and put a matchbook cover under the table leg in an explosion of anger that was way bigger than the rocking table warranted.  But the message was clear.  The scene wasn’t about the rocking table.  The rocking table was a way of showing how the character couldn’t deal with the end of her relationship, and the anger and upset she felt as a result.

Kasha and rocking tables are great when they are used to highlight what a character is thinking and feeling without the character having to actually say what he or she is thinking or feeling.  Just make sure the kasha doesn’t become the star of the show.

A Twist in the Tale

You’re writing five pages a day, or one hour a day, and your fingers are flying on the keyboard as your characters and story take off, moving forward almost faster than you can get the words on screen.  Then…screeeeeech…crash!  You’ve written your characters into a hole you can’t get them out of it.  Your brain freezes, as do your hands hovering over your keyboard.  You’re stuck.  So are your characters.  What do you do?

Whenever I write myself into a corner, I have several tricks to get myself out of it.  First, if I put a character into a situation I can’t get her out of, I don’t delete the situation and go for something more easily solved.  I love not knowing how to get her out of her hole because if I don’t know, my audience won’t know either and will read (or watch) on to see how the character makes her escape.  If I’m writing with a partner, as I did on “Poor Anastasia” (the talented and wonderful Betsy Snyder), I’ll talk out the situation with her.  Two heads sometimes are better than one and with two of us tackling the problem, one of us can usually come up with an answer.

If I’m writing alone, I may discuss my knotty plot problem with a friend, but it’s important the friend be knowledgeable about writing and objective enough to not feel hurt if I don’t use his or her solution.  Many times, while listening to my friends’ suggestions, I actually get inspired and use their suggestions as a springboard to the idea that actually solves the plot issue.

When no friends are available, or if I just don’t feel like interrupting my work to discuss the story with a friend, I’ll get up and head to the kitchen for a snack.  Invariably, I’m halfway to the kitchen when the solution comes to mind.  If I was good, I’d do a 180 and head back to my office but, alas, I always get the snack first then return to my computer.

Sometimes, I’ll take a yellow legal pad or my laptop and write in another location.  A different venue gets different creative juices flowing and I’m able to tackle the plot issue from a different perspective.

Finally, when stuck, I’ll go back to my five pages of stream of consciousness and just write, “I’m really stuck here and I don’t know how to solve the issue.  What if this happens or that happens…?”  And then, happily, I find the solution.

But whatever you do, don’t stop writing.  Because then you may find yourself stuck permanently, with your character trapped in that tricky situation forever.

Know your audience

After Jeff Lerner from Sony hired me to consult on the Russian soap “Poor Anastasia,” he and I had a conference call with the Russian producers and head writers of the project.  I had been given some of the translated material to get an idea of what the story was about and clearly Jeff and I considered it a soap opera.  In looking for an American writer for the project, Jeff called my agent, Jim Sarnoff, because Jim represented soap writers exclusively.  Jeff knew he needed a writer experienced in American daytime soaps to give knowledgeable help to the Russian writers.  When I read the material, essentially a synopsis of the story, I knew it was a soap: the Russians planned to air it five days a week (in primetime, however, not during the day), the central story was romantic, featuring twentysomething characters as well as strong families in conflict with one another.

However, during the conference call with my Russian colleagues (who I had yet to meet), I referred to the show as a miniseries.  Alexander Akopov, the executive producer of “Poor Anastasia,” leapt at on my description, agreeing that, yes, that’s exactly how they saw the project, as a miniseries.

Well, you can have a miniseries that’s still soapy and I didn’t pay as much attention to his enthusiastic endorsement of the show’s description until mid-way into the writing of the show.

In other post I’ll write about Jeff’s and my first visit to Moscow when it became clear the two male headwriters didn’t understand the soap genre and Alexander fired them and made me the headwriter.  (Although Jeff and I insisted he keep one of the writers, Yuri Belenki, who remains a dear friend.)  As the headwriter, I was responsible for the vision of the show, as well as story and character development.  The writers I hired, as I’ve written in another post, argued with me constantly about how I was telling the story, claiming it wasn’t Russian.  When I would exclaim, “the babushka in Minsk will love this,” they’d argue back, “The babushka in Minsk will never watch it!”  (Turns out she did; in fact half the country watched “Poor Anastasia.”)

What I came to realize is that my writers didn’t understand who their audience was.  They were all university-educated, smart, funny and verbal but they were all a bit embarrassed by the show.  It was too romantic.  Too soapy.  It was not a show they would watch.

Here’s a deep, dark secret: Given a choice, I wouldn’t watch soaps either.  Aside from “Dark Shadows,” which I loved as a kid, I was never a soap fan.  I wanted to write for the police procedurals like “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue.”  But somehow I found myself writing for soaps and being told to stick with the genre because I was good at it.  And while I may not have been the audience I was writing for, I understood I better know who that audience was and write for them!

Which is what I told my Russian writers.  I said we were writing this for every woman in Russia who was coming home from her stressful, low-paying job, who had to take care of her husband/parents/children.  That she needed to turn on the TV and watch a show in which she could forget about her problems, lose herself in the romance of Korf and Repnin competing for Anna’s love, while Anna hides the terrible secret that she’s a serf.  “You may not watch this,” I told them, “but there are millions of women out there who will.  If we understand exactly what they want to see.”

Whatever you write for, whether you like the genre or not personally, you have to know your audience and write for them.  Even if you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, you need to ask yourself, “Who do I want to read/watch this?”  You certainly shouldn’t write a sweet, tender love story if you’re hoping for an audience of teenage boys.    When I wrote “Killer Ratings,” I aimed for an audience who enjoyed light mystery but also wanted to know about what goes on behind the scenes of a primetime TV drama.  

Throughout, Alexander Akopov supported my point of view and encouraged me to never give in to my writers when they wanted to take conflict or un-Russian-like story twists out of the plot.  But, secretly, Alexander was still embarrassed by the soapy elements. The story Alexander wanted to tell?  Monetary reform!

It seems that in 1842 St. Petersburg, the finance minister Kankrin (Jeff thought his name sounded like a hemorrhoid medication)  urged the Tsar to revalue the ruble.  Nikolai I did and–yea!–the ruble was revalued.  Alexander felt this was a very important moment in Russian history that should be dramatized, and, suspecting I might disagree (after all, I took out all scenes in which the tsarevich provided his fiancee, Marie of Saxe-Coburg, skin cream for her psoriasis that my writers felt was necessary because “she really did have skin problems”) wrote and shot the scenes behind my back, only revealing them to Jeff and me when we were back in Los Angeles for a short break and unable to physically stop him.

Naturally, Jeff and I hit the roof but it was a done deal.  Alexander was the boss, he’s the one who hired Sony, and therefore me, to come to Russia and work on the show.  When the monetary reform story line aired, I asked a Russian-speaking acquaintance who lived in L.A. to check the Internet and see what the fans were saying.  She checked for a week and our subsequent conversation went something like this:

Masha (not her real name): Are you sure you gave me the right dates the story was airing?

Me: Yeah, why?

Masha: Because I don’t see anything about monetary reform.  No discussion at all.

Me: Are you sure?  What are they talking about?

Masha:  It seems Repnin and Korf had a duel over Anna.  That’s all they’re talking about.  They’re really angry that Anna ended up with Repnin, they want her with Korf.

See?  My audience didn’t care about monetary reform.  They were engaged in the romance, in the duel for Anna’s heart.  I also learned something hugely important: that the audience wanted Anna to end up with Korf (the bad boy) as opposed to Repnin (the good guy).  Isn’t that always the case?  My Russian writers would never tell me something as important as that (although some did alert me that monetary reform story was a bust).  But finding out about it, I used the second half of the series to slowly bring Korf and Anna together and found another love interest for poor Repnin.  Of course Korf and Anna didn’t really come together until the last episode of the show.  I wanted the audience to keep watching in the hopes Korf and Anna would be together at the end.

The funny thing is, while I wrote the show for those poor, stressed-out women, their young daughters started watching it with them, and even their husbands, and, yes, even Putin, who admitted to a journalist in some embarrassment that he watched the show two or three nights a week!

The Russians are so different from us in so many respects but there’s one thing we all have in common: We love a good story well told.

Money Money Money

As a junior in high school, I had my mandatory meeting with Mr. Workman, my guidance counselor, to have what was essentially the “what do I want to be when I grow up” conversation so he could direct me to an appropriate college.

When I told Mr. Workman that I wanted to be a TV writer, he made a valiant effort to choke back his surprise (in the 1970s, writing for television was not the popular career choice it is today), and said if I succeeded I’d make a lot of money but it was a very difficult profession to get into.

I had no idea you could make a lot of money writing for television. I simply wanted to write for TV no matter what it paid. Mr. Workman then recommended a small, liberal arts college with an excellent academic reputation (Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA where I spent four tumultuous years learning to grow up as well as write for TV in non-traditional ways).

When I eventually started to write as a professional TV writer I discovered Mr. Workman was right on both counts: it was hard to break in but once I did I could make a lot of money.

Let’s talk about the money.  If you’re hired to write an episode of a network primetime hour long drama today, you will make $13,948 for writing the story (outline). If the writer-producers then send you on to script (teleplay) you make an additional $22,997.

If you’re on staff, you will most likely get paid for story and teleplay without needing to get the okay to go to script. In that case you make a lump sum of $34,956 for each script you write. And staff writers tend to write anywhere from three to seven scripts per season. Depending on the number of guaranteed working weeks in your contract, you can make an additional $3,325-$4,244 per week. So, as a writer on a network primetime hour long series, you will easily make over $100,000 a year.

Employment on non-network shows is lower but still more than what most people in this country earn in a year. For a complete list of minimum salaries writers make in any area of Guild-covered writing, check the Writers Guild web site (www.wga.org) and click on Schedule of Minimums.

When you’re a staff writer on a show, you think you’ll be making this money forever. And some writers will. They’ll rise through the ranks, become showrunners, develop a reputation of being a successful writer-producers and spend the majority of  their years working. But the sad truth is most writers don’t have a multi-decade career or make the big bucks forever. Unfortunately, they don’t understand that and spend the money as if they’ll be making those six figure salaries forever.

If you’re one of the fortunate few who has gotten on staff and started receiving those amazing paychecks, save your money. I’m not saying don’t buy that Beamer you’ve had your eye on, or the two-story Colonial dream house south of Ventura Blvd.  But don’t spend every dollar of your paycheck. Set some aside for that day when the jobs dry up and your agent stops calling you. Give yourself a cushion so that when you find yourself unemployed (temporarily, I hope) you don’t have sell your house or become a barista at Starbucks. Be financially comfortable enough so you can write a new project that will get you noticed again.

My mother jokes that I always saved the first dollar I made from babysitting. She’s not wrong. During my bouts of unemployment, I wrote “Killer Ratings,” various spec pilots, one of which was bought by the Russians and actually produced. A couple of specs I wrote (a TV movie, a “Sex and the City” spec as well as that dramedy pilot the Russians bought) led to writing work on “Dallas” (the original), “Sunset Beach,” and “Hollywood Heights.”

I was able to to wrote those specs because I had saved my money and didn’t need to look for a non-writing job to pay the bills.  I hope you’ll do the same.

Lost in Translation and Spaghetti

Despite having studied Russian for approximately three years, I did not speak the language well, only really knowing, “Hi, how are you?” and “Good” and “Goodbye.”  Which meant that when I laid out story with my team of Russian writers, I had an interpreter.

The first week my writers of “Poor Anastasia” met with me they were furious with how I was telling story, insisting it wasn’t very Russian, no one in Russia would behave in such a way, and the Tsar (remember, this was an historical soap, the Tsar and his handsome son and heir featured prominently) would never do whatever I was proposing he do (get involved in his son’s romances, have emotional conversations with his wife).  You name it, whatever I suggested, my writers hated it.

Early on, my interpreter, a frail-looking young woman whose name I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve forgotten, told me the writers were correct.  The story was not very Russian.  No one in Russia would watch the show.  Once I ascertained she had never written anything before in her life and had no experience working on a soap, I told her to not tell me that, just interpret.  Which she took to mean to tell the writers what she just told me about the show not being very Russian!

She was transferred out of the writers’ room and replaced by Masha Saltykova, who had spent a year in an American high school and not only spoke English extremely well but understood and tolerated me, the crazy American.

Nonetheless, I knew story was getting lost in translation and that I not only had to make sure my stories, character motivations and plot twists were as specific as possible but I had to be able to support my rationale for all my proposals since the Russian writers questioned everything.  And that, by the way, turned out to be extremely beneficial as it forced me to ensure my stories and character motivations  were as clear and as understandable as possible.  If I couldn’t convince my writers why I wanted to have a character behave in a certain way, I soon came to realize it was because my own rationale was weak or unclear.  Which in turn caused me to rethink that character’s actions.

When the show began shooting, I was on the set one day with Jeff Lerner, my Sony executive, and Tony Morina, an American soap director and producer who was hired to supervise the Russian director and production team.  We were observing  Pyotr Schtein, a famous Russian theater director whose presence on “Poor Anastasia” was supposed to lend prestige to the show; Valery, the “creative producer” (I was never sure what he did on the set except to disapprove of everything I wrote);  and Tony’s interpreter, Katya.

We were watching a scene being shot, in which the two antagonists, Modestovich and Polina, were eavesdropping on a conversation between our heroine and her protector, Baron Korf.  The scene was supposed to be menacing, the audience aware that Polina and Modestovich were threats to heroine Anna.  But Pyotr Schtein was having them play it for laughs.  Jeff and I explained to the director that the actors needed to play the scene more seriously.  Pyotr Schtein spoke at length in Russian to Valery, the creative producer.  Tony turned to Katya for a translation and she said, “Oh, they were talking about the lighting.”

Now, I may not speak Russian very well but I do understand it, and what the director was really telling the creative producer was, “Who do these Americans think they are, coming in here and telling us how to produce a television show?  Why don’t they just go back to America?”

Katya was also transferred to another department.

Finally, spaghetti.  While working on “Poor Anastasia” Sony put me up at the fabulous Grand Hyatt Hotel in Moscow, and their restaurant menu featured spaghetti bolognese.  I love spaghetti bolognese, it’s my all-time favorite dish, I’ve been known to eat it for breakfast, that’s how much I love it.  So, I was eating spaghetti bolognese practically every night and raving about it to the other Americans who were hired by Sony to consult on different aspects of “Poor Anastasia” as well as the Russian adaption of “The Nanny.”

One night, Tony Morina decided he had to see for himself if the Hyatt’s spaghetti bolognese was as wonderful as I kept saying it was.  He ordered it and, to his surprise, received a plate of plain spaghetti with a small bowl of mayonnaise on the side.

Tony ordered spaghetti bolognese but the waitress heard “spaghetti mayonnaise.”

See what I mean by lost in translation!

In the beginning….

The event that changed my life came as all these things do, with a phone call, totally out of the blue.

I had just been fired from “Guiding Light,” with a couple more scripts left to write.  (In daytime TV, in some contracts, you have what’s called a “notice date” in which your boss or agent calls to let you know your contract is not being picked up, but you still have x amount of shows [usually four] left to write. Very discombobulating to do your best, knowing the Powers That Be just fired you, but for me at least, I do always try and do my best.)

In any case, I was at home, sitting at my desk in my office, most likely writing one of these “dead man walking” scripts, when my phone rang. It was my agent, Jim Sarnoff, calling to tell me about a call he had just received from an executive at Columbia Television (now Sony Pictures Television International).

“The guy’s looking for a writer interested in some sort of Russian soap. Historical. I’m not sure what it’s about or if it’ll come to anything. You may have to go to Russia.  If you’re interested, give him a call. His name’s Jeff Lerner. Here’s his number.”

Now, here are some things my agent didn’t know about me:

1. My grandmother, Sonia Schecter Seidman Schweisberg Schmuckler (the woman was married as many times as a soap opera heroine), was from Odessa, escaping to the U.S. after one pogrom too many.

2. In high school I thought it would be very cool to learn Russian so I could speak to her in her native language. So, I studied the language my senior year in high school and for two semesters in college.

3. Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated by historical catastrophe. The sinking of the Titanic, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Amelia Earhart’s disappearance.  So:

3. When, in 1971, the movie “Nicholas and Alexandra” was coming out, my mom told me it was based on a true story about the last tsar of Russia, murdered, with his wife and five children, and that his only son had hemophilia…and…the movie was based on a book. Catastrophe lover that I am,  I ran to the library to check out the book. Which I then had to stop reading because my brother, according to Mom, had already bought the book for me and was waiting to give it to me as a birthday present.

4. The book, “Nicholas and Alexandra” by Robert Massie, started my lifelong fascination with Russian history.  (I still have it–dog-eared and very much treasured.)

Which all came to a head that fateful afternoon when my agent called and told me about the historical Russian soap and that this Jeff Lerner wanted to meet writers interested in the project.

My only thought after hanging up the phone with Jim was how soon could I call Jeff Lerner without appearing embarrassingly eager. (The answer: Screw it. I called within five minutes.)

I met with Jeff a week or two later. The Russians were writing a historical soap called “Bednaya Nastya” (“Poor Anastasia”) set in 1842 St. Petersburg about two noblemen in love with a serf and the daughter the serf has with one of the noblemen. Jeff gave me some translated pages to read and when I saw that the Tsar and his son featured in the series, I lit up like a Roman candle on July 4. This was not Nicholas II and his son Alexei who were murdered in Ekaterineburg on Lenin’s orders, this was Nicholas I and his son, the Tsarevich Alexander, who would later free the serfs and then be tragically blown up by a suicide bomber. I immediately started lecturing Jeff on this Nicholas (who started the Crimean War) and his son, probably boring him to tears but with my enthusiasm unabated.

I got the job. Six months later Jeff and I made our first trip to Moscow. And because of one phone call, out of the blue, I had the adventure of my life for the next six years.

Be nice!

When you’re working on a writing staff for a TV show, you’re spending more time with your colleagues than you are with your family. And like your family you have good days and bad with your fellow writers.  It’s important to get along with them, not only to make your work more pleasant but a lovely side benefit is that more often than not, you end up with dear friends long after you’ve all moved on from that show.

I was hired on “Knots Landing” mid-season, when the staff was already established. As excited as I was to be working on “Knots” I was nervous about meeting the other writers, fearful that they might resent a new writer dropped into their midst.

I will never forgot my first day of work. I was given a former storage room as an office, windowless, small, with a desk and chair squeezed in among the supplies. Suddenly, the three other staff writers, crowded in the doorway to introduce themselves. Rachel Cline, Don Marcus, Jim Magnuson. They made room in my office to hang out with me, and they could not have been warmer or more welcoming.

I was so touched that I vowed then and there that if I was the “old hand” on a show, I would be as warm and welcoming to the newbie as Rachel, Don and Jim were to me.

Years later, I was hired on the Aaron Spelling soap “Sunset Beach” where, as the last one hired on the original writing team, I was again given a warm welcome by the other writers. I’ll never forget Betsy Snyder walking around the large conference table, hand extended in greeting, joking about why she couldn’t join me and the other writers for a welcome to the show lunch a few days before. I was new to daytime soap and feeling out of my element. Betsy, who sat next to me in the writers’ room was patient, helpful and encouraging. When I was hired to write “Poor Anastasia” in Russia she was my first choice to help me come up with story for the series.

When Betsy left “Sunset Beach” she was replaced by Paula Cwikly. I only knew Paula as an NBC executive but I was determined to follow the path of Rachel, Don, Jim and Betsy and extend her a warm welcome. As a result, Paula and I remain the best of friends (in fact we’re having lunch today), and when she became headwriter of “Days of our Lives” and I found myself unexpectedly unemployed, she immediately hired me to write scripts on “Days.”

Betsy has also remained a good friend, as has Don (as well as other writers from my various shows).   I love that my friends and I hire each other when we can. But I especially love that after all these years we have remained friends.

Being nice costs nothing and gains you everything.