It occurred to me tonight that I’ve written five full-length pilots, and a sequence of webisodes that is probably a fair equivalent to one. This is over roughly a period of four years, from The Grey in 2007 to Black Dog, just a couple of months ago. Though I don’t have a specific thesis here, I thought it might be interesting to dig into the writing of each pilot…
The Grey was the very first pilot I’d ever written, after a couple of years at MZP, the scripted webseries site I’ve been a member of since 2005. I was sixteen and just digging into the world of script, and I was excited to finally have an original series idea expressed in a pilot. As a member of MZP with some degree of familiarity with most of the fixtures around the community, I knew even if it wasn’t well-received, folks were on my side.
Anyone interested in reading the original ‘pitch’ thread can look here. The link to the pilot script is dead, and I don’t have a decent PDF copy since my desktop died, but the link to the series third episode is still active. This was written under my longtime pseudonym, Alden Caele.
The Grey was an… interesting experience. It was born out of me freewriting after coming up with an intriguing ‘image’ (a woman waking up, bloody, in a secret compartment of a cruise ship). I wrote the series’ third episode before I wrote the pilot, which has some serious consequences for said pilot. As one reviewer, longtime friend who patiently puts up with my bullshit Michael Jay, puts it:
Not even a third into the script and we’re rapid firing through characters, not really getting a genuine response of any of them. […] A bunch of stuff happens with no real development on anything. Reads like Alden had to get all this information out of the way. As a pilot, it doesn’t work.
As it turned out, I had approached the pilot like a to-do list. I’d loved writing the third episode, with its intrigues and already ‘established’ character relationships, and the first two episodes in my mind had largely become a hurdle to get to episode four. Which really should have concerned me, but it didn’t, and that weakened the script.
I wrote without an outline, a mistake I would fix by my next pilot after having written a few more scripts. Thus, the pilot is a meandering, plotless mess that kind of plods forwards, rather than building any genuine steam. I also had the very distinctive problem-solving mechanism where if something didn’t make sense, I’d just ignore that and barrel on, leaving plenty of plot holes in my wake. It’s a common first-time mistake, or so I hear, and one I’d warn against: readers always notice, and wonder why things make no sense.
Another rookie mistake I made: the pilot was all set-up, no payoff. It was a series of mysterious events that the characters wandered through, not a distinct story that kicked off a series. That was also apparent to the readers, and something I’d completely ignored through the writing process. If I learned anything from The Grey, it was the importance of outlining.
The Grey really showcased a lot of things that would show up in later pilots, I think. R.J. is the ‘overconfident manwhore’ stereotype that would reappear in early incarnations of Villainous before crystallising into two different forms in Timeless, as lead Wells, and Black Dog, in guest star Jack of All Trades. Both of these characters are darker, less oversexed, but they still contain elements of the archetype. It’s rearing its head again in a character that basically works as a parody of my reliance on it in my latest pilot, Characters.
Tessa, meanwhile, is a clear predecessor to my other logical, acerbic/snarky supporting ladies who cut through the bullshit and bring the truth to light. In Lifeblood, her descendant was Torres, the lead’s level-headed straight talking assistant-slash-partner. In Timeless, series co-lead Bet had more than a couple of similarities to Tessa, although my more-developed skills at creating a strong, complex character meant that Bet was much more than an advancement of Tessa’s archetype. And the clearest descendant of Tessa is Ray’s logical, almost cold partner Amanda in my latest pilot, Black Dog. Both Tessa and Amanda are sarcastic blondes with a personality that seeks truth and an occupation that occasionally means hiding it. They’re very different characters with very different voices, but I think they come from the same stock.
It also demonstrated how malleable my work is to the creative forces influencing me at that point. The Grey was heavily influenced by both Lost and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as Veronica Mars. The voiceovers, the spunky young heroines and the obsessions with mystery arcs… yeah, I was a product of my influences. Now, my work is informed by my favourite shows, but in a healthier way: Black Dog, for example, is influenced by the darkness and worldbuilding of Battlestar Galactica, for example, without copying its story, characters or formatting quirks.
The character of Sarah, though I adored writing her, may be one reason I’ve never had a prominent child character again. However, her dialogue was always my favourite. Note her story to herself from the third episode upon finding a fountain in the shape of a mermaid, to avoid her boredom:
One day, there was a mermaid. She decided her tail was ugly, so she wanted to cut it off and see if she had legs underneath. So she went to see the sea wizard, and he told her, “You’ll always be a mermaid.” And then she cried. The end.
It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but years later the utter childish inanity gives me a smile. That character was the first time I really fell in love with a character’s voice. Meanwhile, R.J. was the first time I fell in love with a character’s texture. His dialogue never really sang, but I envisioned him beautifully. How he walked, talked, dressed, spoke. He was real to me in a way most of the others, particularly Alex and Rose, weren’t.
What happened to The Grey? I considered revamping the pilot and pursuing it as a series, but I didn’t feel like the show was something I wanted to spend years with. The most I ever got out of these two scripts, besides the useful experience of writing them, was using them as the sample to get into Ryerson University. If you’re applying to a TV program as a writer, I guess it can’t hurt to have a pair of TV scripts on hand as a sample.
2007 (then again in 2008, and again in 2010)
There’s only so much I can say about Villainous. Not because there’s not much to say, but because there’s too much to say. This concept/pilot has a history that long outweighs its quality, and it was the concept that would not die. Even now that I’ve largely put it to bed, a co-conspirator is nudging me towards continuing it.
Here’s the thing: sometimes you stumble upon a genius premise, and then later on, figure out that you are not the person to write it.
I am no comedian, and my attempts at ‘funny’ have not been terribly impressive. It works better with other people’s characters, as I’ve had some staff work at MZP and spec work for Community and Archer that’s been able to draw laughs. But I have no ability how to build or structure a comedic pilot, and all of my instincts are from one-hour drama. So, of course, after blowing my first drama pilot, I don’t try again. I try comedy.
There were too few jokes. It didn’t have a consistent pace of jokes. The structure and plot were wonky. The tone was uneven. And it was a fantasy comedy, which meant the only real comparison people could make (to make matters worse, on this British site), was the brilliant Monty Python – a comparison that made my work look especially ungainly. The problem was, after that pilot, I knew to take advantage of the premise I’d have to strip it down and start again from a new point of view, with a new cast. And I’d gotten attached.
The pilot was not received well. Casual reviewers liked it and everyone had a favourite character, but serious reviewers tore it apart. And reviews and community goodwill decreased with every draft. By the last time I rewrote the pilot again last year, round number three, everyone was wishing I’d go away. But I was in love with these characters, and this world, and kept digging the hole bigger and bigger. With Villainous, I learned that sometimes following your instincts – even if they’re telling you to stop – is usually the right course of action. Also, I learned to pick myself up and recover from a serious critical blow. Villainous was my first real failure, and I still carry it with me, as much as I’d love to leave it behind.
Villainous had the same issue as The Grey in one sense: an episode after the pilot was better-received than the pilot itself. What was meant to be the series’ second episode, Draco vs. the Princess, had a guest character that garnered positive reviews that deeply outstripped any other Villainous script. I’ve, as of yet, been unable to capture that critical praise in any other piece of work for Villainous. That will always frustrate me, even more than the failure of the pilot, because I got it right once… and never again.
After the collapse of Villainous, it would be another three years before I’d complete a new pilot. But once I started, I couldn’t stop, polishing off three pilots in the span of a year, as well as a 50-page webseries. And in this batch I saw my first success. Check back for Part II: Learning to Crawl, covering Darken House in summer 2010 and Lifeblood in early fall, and Part III: Playing to My Strengths, with Timeless in early 2011 and Black Dog only a month later.
Questions, comments? Feel free to respond below!