January 3, 2012

THE WRITE STUFF: THE CAGE, OR: THE TV SHOW ABOUT THE NEWS YOU WON'T SEE

In May 2009, right after I had finished the slavery... uh, work, yes, work... on It Takes A Wizard and 10 Beautiful Assassins and having finished two screenplays that were more or less designed (i.e. I wrote them with a potential market in mind) with Safe and Possession, I was empty.

I couldn't write. I didn't want to write. I wanted to lie down somewhere and die. And all the shit that was going to happen with my book publisher was happening as well as me desperately trying to get a manager or agent in Hollywood for those two movie scripts...
[INSERT IMAGE: See how the writer does cold emails everywhere and gets told by everyone that "under no circumstances will we ever talk to you" even though I had already had a screenplay called Reality Check optioned by Julian Krainin in the early 2000s, had two books coming out and thus couldn't be called quite a "stupid fanboy writer", but hey, who gives a fuck, right?]
I was deeply frustrated, not only by the industry (and the people in it), but still thinking, if you are better than anybody else, they will come, right, Kevin Costner, right? Come on, it works in every fucking goddamned movie. If you write it, they will come!

And I didn't want to write anything that was "designed", I had spent 2.5 years writing on assignment, I had written stuff that was catering to the "invisible hand of the market" for so long that I felt like a whore all the time, and I say "whore", not "prostitute", because, see kids, prostitutes get at least paid...

... and so I finally sat down and told myself, just this once, Thomas, you'll write something for yourself. You won't give a fuck about who might read it, it will never be produced anyway [how prescient of me, non?], but you will write a concept and the pilot for a TV show that you've wanted to write since my days at Bertelsmann in 2003. 

A show about... journalists!

I know, right?

Like, a show about the most hated professional group after politicians (and today, bankers) ... what the hell was I thinking?

Well, I was thinking exactly that. Journalists suck. I know. I used to have been one. Journalism (as I have made the point here on this blog a few times in Journalism Watch) has become a degenerate profession, has devolved from what it was, what it should be to.... TMZ and Perez Hilton and Hackgate and Murdoch and ....


... but that's exactly what I wanted to write about. Not as a comedy, not as a farce, I wanted to write about journalists in a way that you would write about soldiers. I wanted to tackle it in such a way like it was a mixture between Band of Brothers and The West Wing, I wanted to update All the President's Men... but as a TV show...

... and I wanted to use the model of the "TV Mini Novel" that I had invented in 2007.


Insane, right? Yeah, I know!

This is what became The Cage.

[INSERT EXPLANATION: The pitch document you see here is essentially (but not quite, it would be too long to explain the various versions I went through) the "pitch" I did for the show... a few months after I had written the pilot, trying to make it "interesting" to read, hence the "tabloid" opening page with its summary and, yes, Matt Perry!... and also the quotes from the pilot episode for each of the main characters that would, so I hoped, encapsulate their personalities. Did I mention that I wrote it for Matt Perry in my head? I did? Oh, well...]

I wrote the first draft of it in less than 12 days. A masssive, detailed draft of a pilot episode that I thought would put Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing scripts to shame. I would also like to point out that this script and concept existed long before Sorkin wrote Newsroom... and that I was very much aware of the points I make and the problems I point out in the linked blog post by me... in 2009 already. So whoever is out there, don't even fucking think that I "stole" from Sorkin, okay?

In the pilot, there was a lot of fast talking, a lot of smart people in really terrible situations. The script was also 87 pages long, which ensured that nobody would ever read it. Nobody that mattered. Because people that matter in Hollywood, and kids, write this down, tattoo it inside your eyelids...

.... people who matter in Hollywood are too stupid to really read!

It didn't matter. Not to me. I was proud of what it was.

Very proud. Ah, vanity... one of my favorite sins, eh?

But knowing that nobody would care to read it, I put it into a folder on my system... and looked at it every now and then and thought, well, if you never write anything else in your life, Thomas, you wrote this, and it's your most personal piece ever... and it is good.

Let's skip to early 2010, and somebody did read it. And that somebody smelled money. And that somebody knew the "development guy" at Mpower Pictures... which i had never heard of, but it was apparently the production company of Steve McEveety, one of the numerous guys who had produced Mel Gibson's Braveheart...

... and is it okay that my script would be shown to this guy, because "this is the best thing I have read in such a long time"? Sure, I said, and tried not to roll my eyes too much, because here's the thing, kids, these kind of folks always call anything and everything "awesome" if it suited them. Whatever. The script stood as it stood. Nobody could steal it.
[INSERT IMAGE: Imagine the author and creator thinking to himself, why worry? This won't go anywhere anyway. But hey, what do you have to lose? Like I said, whatever]
I will cut this short, because as much fun as it can be to dissect the process that happened between March 2010 until I (yes, I) pulled the plug on this "relationship" in August 2010, I have already done so (without naming names) here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here

And after the "development guy" (and no, I still won't name him, you can google him, it's easy. Do some work) apologized and I let them tell me "it's with the networks now", here....

[INSERT EXPLANATION: I don't believe in lying, and if you read through the links here, you will see that I was "hopeful", that I was a "team player" or at least tried to be, I listened when I thought that somebody made a good point, but in the end, you can see my frustration and my righteous anger at the numerous stupidities and more importantly, the attempts to dumb my concept down to Castle: News Reporters... and for what it's worth, I stand by my words from back then that you cannot do a show about journalism in August 2010 and not even know what Wikileaks is]
At the end, not because it made it "better" but only "shorter" (= fit onto the mandatory and completely stupidly random "formatting"), I had cut down the pilot - without having lost too much of dialogue (and sneakily thinking that I could re-insert most of it in the shooting script stage, yeah, talk about delusion)... I had the script down to 42 pages.

So let's show you a little bit.

That's what you're here for, right?

Okay, that's what I pretend, and I stand by that delusion, too...

If you've read (or skimmed through) the pitch document, you'll have noticed that I wanted to start the story of The Cage and my reporter James Morrow on literally what would become the worst day of his life, and that I didn't want him to be a "hero" or a "lovable rogue".

I wanted the viewer to not know him at the beginning of the pilot.

I wanted them to question him.

I wanted them to come into the show "knowing" what they "knew" to be the "truth".

That journalists are scum. And only slowly, bit by bit, I wanted to reveal that nothing in this show would ever be what it seemed. And that that there are no heroes. Only people trying to do the right thing.

And paying a very high price for it.

Here's James Morrow. Give him a hand, will you?

Oh, and if there's somebody out there who does want to read this in full (I ain't gonna post all of it), and no, I am not begging or asking, just stating and offering, you can drop me a line at Thomas.R.Hart@gmail.com (it's my drop box, not my actual work email, but I check it relatively often)








And.... the day's just going to get worse. For everybody.

I will most likely write The Cage as a series of novels one day, no, strike that, I will write it as a series of novels someday, but I never will forget that it remains, to this day at least, the one thing in terms of "visual writing" that I am most proud of.

And that, as my friend and artist Edo Fuijkschot once pointed out to me, "is essentially what you are in a nutshell, Thomas. That guy. You are James Morrow. You are that guy."