Dan Duling, playwright and scriptwriter (for the last 36 years) at Pageant of the Masters, Laguna Beach, and William Rabkin, author of Writing the Pilot.
(Broadcast date: July 20, 2016)
After you listen to the podcast of the show with Dan Duling and Bill Rabkin, read the Q&A below. We didn’t have enough time during the show for all my questions.
More with Dan Duling, scriptwriter for Pageant of the Masters
I loved how you spent time on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. What made you choose that partnership to spend a chunk of time on?
We’ve celebrated Frida and Diego in previous Pageants, but when on of the volunteer research committee members submitted the wall mural from the Detroit Institute of Arts (one of the largest living pictures we’ve ever attempted) we knew we wanted to revisit their partnership. And as Pageant director Diane Challis Davy began to envision an exciting Day of the Dead parade and tribute to Frida and Diego, the opening of Act One became even more elaborate and special. For my part, I was especially pleased to be able to use guest voice performers to record the selected quotes from Rivera and Kahlo to further personalize their relationship.
At what point does the music come into play, in terms of production and planning?
Once the director and I settle on the selection of artworks and the sequencing of the show to create opportunities for narrative continuity and variety, I research and write copy (at this point, we’ve actually worked out the shape of the show in terms of the length of each living picture, the nature of the transitions, any special effects, and the length of music and narration to accompany each piece. With this in hand, I know from the beginning just how much time I have to work with and tailor my narration script to that. About this time, the director assigns the various sequences of the show to individual composers most of whom we have now worked with for several years. Once we arrive at a script we both like, I send it to our narrator who does a demo recording in his home studio. And because we have a number of composers all waiting for narration demos, my deadlines for scripts have all moved up about a month earlier than ever before so we can keep everyone moving forward. Thus, the scripts for demo recording are the very first things to keep this portion of the creative production moving forward, even as volunteers are being cast, sets are being built, costumes are being designed and the rest of physical production gets under way. And before any of the composers begin work on their original music or new orchestrations of existing works, the director and I meet with each of them (often by conference calls because of their busy schedules) to go over the intention, approach and precise continuity of every element. By being able to score directly to audio demos from our narrator (who ultimately performs live every night during the run of the show), the composers ideally have a very clear blue print for their creative contribution. Which is important because they are paid by the second!
Do you read your script aloud to edit or do you have your narrator Richard Doyle do the reading aloud?
I got into theater as an actor and am still a member of SAG and Actors Equity, so when I’m writing, I’m always going over how the script sounds. Both the director and I read through the scripts many times. I’m also looking for anything that might prove confusing or tongue-twisting for our narrator since one of the most important challenges of my job is to provide him with a script that he can enjoy performing every night for nearly two months! By the time I send him an approved script of a segment, I feel I know how it should sound and what the emotional tone of the narration should be. Since Richard Doyle is a consummate professional, his input and suggestions from that point on become invaluable as well, though I’m happy to say that he’s come to trust that we’re as committed as he is to making the script as tight, rich and entertaining as we can. And it’s to the credit of my director that she has come to trust and value the contribution of the narration as a vital part of the Pageant experience. Obviously, I’m biased about this, but over our 21-year collaboration (partnership), she’s given me many opportunities to take the Pageant in some very challenging and intriguing directions. This year, those included telling the complicated and ultimately moving stories of Madame Lavoisier, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Roy and Marie Ropp, and pay tribute to a personal favorite, David Hockney.
I found it interesting and it never occurred to me before that all those happy Fred Astaire movies came out as horrible things were happening in Germany and war was breaking out.
Great observation. For the dance sequence narration, we chose to take a Hollywood-centric approach to the stories of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, but you’re absolutely correct. Astaire’s career blossomed out of Hollywood’s commitment during the hard times of the Great Depression to offer Americans light-hearted escape from life’s difficulties. Nobody worked harder than Astaire to keep coming up with new routines, new showcases for his abilities. By the time Gene Kelly came along, WWII fundamentally shifted the outlook of all Americans, and during his golden age in the 1950s, Kelly danced with a renewed sense of gravitas, devoting his energies to encouraging his audiences to see that dance could also be passionate and/or blue collar, not just escapist fun. This sequence was truly a labor of love for Pageant director Diane Challis Davy whose work with professional dancers and choreographers, effects creators, stuntmen and musicians turned this sequence into a mini-Pageant in and of itself.
The pageant always ends with the Last Supper. I particularly loved how you introduced the Last Supper this year. Talk about why you end with that painting and why it was especially meaningful this year.
About a year and a half ago when the director first shared with me that PARTNERS would be the 2016 theme, something immediately clicked for me. After writing narrative introductions of our traditional finale, Leonardo’s Last Supper, for 34 of my 36 Pageants, I’m always looking for a new angle, and as I looked at the calendar, it hit me: 1936: Roy and Marie Ropp end their second Pageant with this hugely ambitious tableau and it brings them international attention; 2016: 80 years later, it’s still our finale. What better way to approach it than to celebrate the partnership between Roy and Marie. For me, this was a slam dunk and also important because in my research over the years about Roy Ropp (regarded as the “father of the Pageant”), I’d come to more fully appreciate the enormous contributions of his wife Marie (in addition to helping with costuming, she was the one who wrote the first narrations, chose the music to be performed live, and had a working knowledge of “living pictures” to the point that she gave the Pageant its original designation as “art that lives and breathes.” There’s nothing I enjoy more than being able to celebrate under-appreciated women artists, and in finally being able to pay tribute to “the father AND MOTHER of the Pageant, I knew exactly how I wanted to tell the story. And though we kicked around many MANY ways of leading up to presenting a romanticized “builder” approach to the Last Supper, I already knew the story I wanted to tell, and in that final moment where husband and wife take hands before their set and share a personal moment in the seconds leading up to what would become a game-changer for Pageant and Festival history, I wanted to finally give her the credit she’s long deserved (and which Roy, in his personal papers, readily acknowledged as well). As the finale for PARTNERS, a show that still frequently moves me to near-tears several times during every performance, I’m just VERY pleased that audiences have also responded with such unanimous enthusiasm to a theme and a finale that remains very personal to me.
Talking more with William Rabkin, author of Writing the Pilot
No longer do writers write spec scripts for existing shows to break in. Is that correct? When and why did that change?
Most people looking for new writers want to see original material these days—generally a spec pilot. I think the most important reason for that is that everyone is looking for fresh voices and original points of view. The ability to write in the voice of a series is still important, but it’s secondary to the vision.
As for when and why…it’s got a lot to do with the explosion of series and channels. When I wrote the spec that started my career, it was for a show called Spenser: For Hire, but it was basically a sample that could apply to the dozen cop or detective shows that were on the air at the time. Now there are close to 450 scripted shows out there, and if you choose to write a spec for a show about a bunch of vikings, how can a showrunner with a series about people building the first laptop in the 80s use that to judge a writer? Except on the most basic elements of quality — but if we’re just judging story construction, characters and the rest, as opposed to the ability to recreate a specific genre or show, why not read something original which will take a lot less explanation?
And when — I’d say the shift must have hit hard when Mad Men was a hot show to spec. Because that series was so completely different, with a storytelling style so oblique (or opaque) it was sometimes hard to tell if a spec writer was doing a great job mimicking Matt Weiner or just didn’t know how to tell a story…
So when you’re writing a TV pilot, how far into the future do you need to plan, as far as the season and series go? In other words, if you’re called in for a meeting, how much would executives want to know that you know?
I recently had the opportunity to speak with an executive from one of the major cable networks, and he said that this had changed significantly. It used to be enough to have a rough idea of the first season and maybe some vague ideas beyond that. But now they wanted a real plan for four or five years. Of course, if your show is a hit and you veer off from there, I can’t imagine any executive calling to complain — but they want to know there’s a path forward and that you’re capable of thinking it through.
What should writers know about writing supporting characters?
That they exist to support the protagonist and the story. One of the biggest flaws I see in spec pilots is characters who are there to be funny or wacky or different or just because the writer falls in love with them. A supporting character exists to represent one side of the series’ central conflict, to pull the protagonist in one direction. Character and story are indistinguishable, and if your characters aren’t there for a story reason, they are dragging you down.
I understand that writing a terrific script is a given, but besides that, how can a writer up their odds for breaking in?
This is where social media can be your biggest ally. Because what I’ve been preaching for years — and seeing more and more recently — is that one of the best ways to break in is to produce something and distribute it online. This has two benefits — first, it’s a lot easier for an executive to click a link and watch something for a few minutes than to open yet another script. But much more important is that if you put your stuff online and it’s good, you can build an audience. And if you build a big enough audience, the studios will start coming to you, because you’ve got something they want, because you’ve proven you can attract viewers. We’re seeing this all the time in the music business, where someone like Halsey puts her songs on YouTube and they’re discovered by millions of listeners and then she’s going to negotiate with the labels as a star, not an unknown. TV execs are looking for the same kind of phenomenon.
One more question: If a wanna be TV writer doesn’t live close to LA or NYC, what do you suggest, in terms of learning how to write for TV? Take an online class like Aaron Sorkin’s master class? Do you teach online? Read scripts? Watch Pilots?
The sad news — sad for some, anyway — is that if you are going to write TV, you are going to have to move to LA… eventually. There’s no way to start a career anywhere else. Well, maybe New York, but only a tiny fraction of the writing — and the hiring of writers — is down out here. LA is where the action is.
But that’s when you’re ready to start your professional career. You don’t have to be there to learn. How you do it? Well, I’d say there are three levels of commitment:
One is to use resources like the Sorkin class — and John August and Craig Mazin’s podcast Scriptnotes, and various books on the craft to help guide your writing as you self-teach. (If you’re actually a student in the Sorkin master class, that’s a little different, but the vast majority of people will be watching it, not participating in it.) And of course you will be watching TV and reading scripts to learn how the great work is done.
The next level up is to start taking online classes at places like Screenwriters University (where I teach a couple of classes) or the UCLA Extension. These have the benefit of putting your work in front of an experience professional who can spot problems and help you course-correct, possibly a lot faster than you might on your own. And some of these classes, I believe, a set up as workshops, so you are reading and being read by other students as well. I find that any interaction with other writers is tremendously helpful in helping you develop your skills, so I’d say it’s worth experimenting with various classes, which generally cost a few hundred dollars per term.
And if you are ready for a serious commitment of time and resources, I would recommend a good low-residency MFA program. Low res is a hybrid kind of teaching, in which roughly 80% of instruction is done online, but students, faculty and guest speakers all gather together for ten days twice a year for intensive workshops, lectures, discussions. As I said, it’s a real commitment — two years and probably close to forty or fifty thousand dollars, just like any masters program. And you’ve got to find one that’s well run, and where the professors have real experience. I teach in two of these — the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, which I think is one of the best creative writing MFA programs in the country, and in the newer Stephens College MFA in Television Writing, which is coming up fast. I love both these programs and have seen students undergo unbelievable growth in both of them…
Note from Barbara: Gotham Writers Workshop also offers online classes in TV writing and screenwriting. I’ve been teaching at Gotham for years and can vouch for the quality of the teachers and the classes.