WRITING: Toronto Screenwriting Conference 1, Linwood Boomer (via Twitter)
April 2, 2012
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Over the weekend bridging March and April, I attended the Toronto Screenwriting Conference. It was a fantastic experience, with talks by figures like Graham Yost (showrunner of Justified), Linwood Boomer (showrunner of Malcolm in the Middle), and Dean DeBlois (co-writer and director of How to Train Your Dragon). I livetweeted the entire weekend, and I was amazed at all the nuggets of gold in there, especially about the culture of working in a staff.
My livetweets from the first session, after the jump…
Linwood Boomer, Creator and Showrunner of Malcolm in the Middle
- I love how he enjoyed acting, but the moment he started writing, it felt so much more fulfilling. I’ve heard that from others.
- “Lunch can take up an entire 9 hour work day if you’re dedicated to it.” – Linwood Boomer, on being a staff writer.
- “My life could have been an excruciatingly dull drama, but I figured that was a waste of time.” What became Malcolm in the Middle.
- Malcolm in the Middle created as a lunch-hour diversion from Silver Spoons, etc., and based around his shitty childhood. (RT Cameron Archer)
- Malcolm’s talking to the camera shtick helped Boomer feel like Malcolm wasn’t alone, allowed him to access the humour of the show.
- Malcolm in the Middle was a midseason show, so there was possibility for the Smash effect, but there were no huge pitfalls.
- Malcolm in the Middle was initially a writing sample, and not meant initially to be a pitched series. (RT Cameron Archer)
- Boomer makes a great point: Networks, paying for the show, see writers as plumbers. Writers see networks as necessary evils.
- Boomer talks about the fact that Malcolm survived because everyone who would interfere with its unique voice was distracted.
- FOX only network, apparently, that doesn’t focus test heavily. MitM didn’t do well with test audiences; it was a patch for Action. (RT Cameron Archer)
- If any one of 20 things had happened (like if Action had succeeded), MitM would have flopped. Luck’s huge, not because the show was bad, but because it was GOOD.
- Linwood read 450 scrips for 10 spots on his writing team! (RT Toronto Screenwriting Conference Twitter)
- First 10-15 pages and Boomer knows if he likes the writer’s style. (RT Cameron Archer)
- When you hit a wall, you “stay in the room and keep people working.” Only way to break through a block.
- A lot of writer’s personal stories ended up in Malcolm in the Middle. (RT TorScreenConf)
- Pushing through the block on the pilot, for days and days, gave Boomer the idea that may have sold the show and made it work.
- Being allowed to say, “I have to defend this choice to the network!” gave Boomer a tool to use to challenge and fight bad ideas in the room.
- Boomer didn’t have one number two that would run with the show in his absence. He basically cycled through his “top-heavy” staff. (RT Cameron Archer)
- “The power in television is with the writer.” Mary Tyler Moore show set the precedent of writers in charge.
- Boomer didn’t allow Malcolm staff to mock each other when telling stories. Tough to enforce in a room full of comedy writers. (RT Kathleen Corrigan)
- Malcolm in the Middle had to create a comedic language in single camera for an audience used to laugh tracks and multi-cam.
- Feature film writers despise feature film directors and rightly so’ says Linwood Boomer, cuz the power lies with the director. (RT First Weekend Club)
- Didn’t shoot in HD because it was boutique at the time, now the show’s on Netflix. A grip shows up in the final scene of the HD pilot.
- “Even if the family was cold and grim, the colouring was warm – like, if the sound was off, they’d seem like the happiest family.”
- On network fights: Boomer says trouble with comedy is you’re never fighting for anything you’re particularly proud of. (RT Kathleen Corrigan)
- Multicam can be a self fulfilling prophecy: knowing network will note the hell out of a script, writers might hand in iffy draft.
- Boomer needed a 2 year break after Malcolm. Felt he’d said everything he had to say by the end of the show.
- “We had a couple of cops on staff whose jobs were to tell us if we’d done a story before.” One such story got to draft, two years after the original, just with the parents instead of the kids.
- When you find a writer who really gets your voice, it helps a lot because it cuts the time on script edits, makes delivery faster.
- Linwood Boomer’s early favourite to play Malcolm played the role much angier than Muniz but everyone else saw Muniz early on in the role.
- Role of Hal was written VERY late into the process and underwritten. Bryan Cranston’s pilot performance inspired what Hal became.
- It’s not about you or what you want to say, it’s about communicating with the audience says Linwood Boomer. (RT Kathleen Corrigan)
- Boomer says Bryan Cranston’s audition had him on the floor laughing and changed his vision of the character. (RT Kathleen Corrigan)
- Boomer never hired a MitM writer on a MitM spec; similar spec-for-same-show nix for Night Court. (RT Cameron Archer)
- How not to annoy the showrunner as a new staffer: don’t talk too much. Staff writers need a few quiet months to adapt to the show.
- Showrunner is the voice of the show. First to go when a show fails is the showrunner. Thus, have to be firm with the staff.
- Bryan Cranston was willing to do anything. The writers started creating crazy situations to find the one thing he wouldn’t do.
- Research is important – especially as it can offer stories that you can use.
Lots of information there about being on a staff and writing a staff. I loved Linwood Boomer’s session, and I’m glad I’ll have a copy of these notes on this blog. Up next after Boomer was Robin Gurney, a producer who helped develop shows such as Arrested Development, Parenthood, Friday Night Lights, and Lie To Me.