#1: Write Rad Shit (On Writing)

See reddit user beardsayswhat’s original list of “unpopular” screenwriting opinions here.

1. Most amateur screenwriters write movies they wouldn’t see. I read a lot of loglines that are poorly written, but even if they were snappy and sharp, they’re for what could be generously described as character dramas and more accurately as tedious faux-deep nonsense. Write rad shit. Write things people want to see.

If there was ever a point where I would have bristled at advice like this, I can’t remember it now. This is just common sense, and frankly, I don’t understand why this would be an unpopular opinion. Maybe some read that and think he’s advocating becoming a sell-out, or to stick to churning out formulaic, commercial fare. But what he’s really saying is don’t be boring. Not to never write something experimental, or that explores real issues, or that says something important. Do any or all of those things. Just don’t be boring while you do it.

As for bit where he seems to shit on character dramas, I don’t think he means you can never write a character drama, or that your high-concept script shouldn’t include strong character drama. Remember, this is advice for non-established screenwriters. Writers who are trying to get noticed. A screenplay about a lovelorn white guy who finds new meaning in life when he meets his manic pixie dream girl isn’t going to raise any eyebrows. (I admit that The Lionshare has surface similarities to some of those cliches, but I think it successfully tells a story with deeper meaning. Plus I made that movie seven years ago, sue me.)

Don’t be boring. That’s a great motto. You know how to tell if you’re writing something boring? If you are bored while you’re writing it. Even if you think you’re writing something with limited appeal, if you have enthusiasm for the material, that enthusiasm will come through. Enthusiasm is infectious. Don’t be boring.

This also doesn’t mean you have to write something that appeals to everybody. If it excites you, there are others out there who will feel the same.

In my last entry I gushed over meeting Ronald D. Moore. You know one of the most important things I learned from him? Not to treat your characters, or your stories, like porcelain dolls. There’s no reason to play it safe when you’re writing a story. You can, and should, take risks. If what you’re writing feels perfunctory, take a step back and re-evaluate. What’s the craziest thing that could happen in your story? How would it change things? What if you, gulp, went ahead and did it?

Go ahead. Kill that character. Jump a year ahead in time. Have the will they/won’t they relationship be consummated between seasons when no one is looking. How did that change things?

Maybe you decide it’s not right. That’s fine. It’s probably not a good idea to shock for shock’s sake. Whatever you do should work within context and should enhance the story you’re trying to tell. But, at the very least, this is a good exercise to challenge yourself and make sure what you’re writing is the best, and most interesting, that it can be.

In short, write rad shit.

Share

Scotch & Cigarettes (The Time I Met Ronald D. Moore)

The Fall of 2006 was probably the height of my obsession with Ronald D. Moore’s “re-imagining” of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. The third season had just premiered and somehow surpassed, at least for me, the high expectations set by the second season cliffhanger.

I was near the end of my time at Binghamton University when my friend Russ noticed a flyer posted outside of the Cinema Department lounge: Ronald D. Moore was going to be giving a talk at Cornell.

Cornell is an hour away from Binghamton.

Do the math. We were going.

Some set-up: When the first season of BSG first aired on SciFi (still SciFi then, not Syfy), Ron Moore (RDM as he’s referred to online) started doing podcast commentaries for each episode. What was great was that he took the opportunity to give a frank, unvarnished look at the process behind each episode, freely admitting when he didn’t like something and why he thought it didn’t work, and always making clear that, ultimately, the buck always stopped with him. It was an amazingly insightful and, at that time, unique peek behind-the-curtain of a television series. (The only other example I can think of is jms’s Usenet posts chronicling the making of BABYLON 5.)

As both a fan of the show and someone with aspirations of making television, you can imagine how much I enjoyed these podcasts. By the third season, I sometimes looked forward more to the podcast than the episode it was commenting on. RDM had also settled into a ritual of using the podcast to “put each episode to bed,” as it were, over a few glasses of scotch and some cigarettes. (The varieties of which he’d announce at the beginning of every podcast. He smoked my brand, at the time.)

ronald-moore-cci-hdrimg

Ronald D. Moore, Cornell almost-graduate

Knowing there was a Q&A period after his presentation, I had an idea. Instead of asking a question, I would present Mr. Moore with a bottle of scotch and a pack of cigarettes, so the next podcast would me “on me.” I went to my local Binghamton liquor store, asked what a nice bottle of scotch was, and walked out with a bottle of Macallan 12. (Not cheap for a college student.) The cigarettes were no issue because at the time I was a smoker and was buying American Spirit Lights by the carton.

I threw the contraband in a backpack and off we went. There were a fair amount of people in the theater, but no one in the front row. I looked at Russ and Mickey and we sat slightly off-center at the very front. There remained a buffer of two or three empty rows behind us (why, I do not know). Mr. Moore came out and started his presentation, remarking that this was his first time back to his alma-mater since dropping out during his senior year twenty years prior. Hard to argue with his decision on that one.

The presentation was mainly about how he went about adapting the original series, how it was both a reaction to 9/11 and to his time as a writer/producer on Star Trek, etcetera. Mostly stuff that I had heard in other places. I really just wanted to get to the Q&A.

“Any questions?”

I raised my hand. Glancing behind me, I saw I was the only one with my hand up. After what seemed like a very long silence, he pointed at me.

“Yes?”

What happened next is a blur. I had just been spoken to by someone who, at the time, was the man on the earth I most wanted to emulate. Someone who I was used to listening to only from afar. So, adrenaline happened. Forgive me.

I know I said something similar to what I described above and gave him the bottle and the smokes, leaving him kind of dumbfounded. I don’t think he was expecting anything like that at all, but at the urging of his wife who was sitting off to the right front, he invited me up to join him on stage and shook my hand. And then something unexpected happened. while sharing the stage with one of my idols, the audience erupted with applause. Honest-to-god applause. A lot of it. It went on, at least in my memory, for quite a while.

I remember none of the questions after that. I’d done what I went there to do, and it was awesome. Better than I expected, even.

After the last question and people were getting up to leave, I was stopped by Mr. Moore’s wife, who had been sitting off to the side. She had popped on the podcast before and from time to time would drop in on the Sci-Fi Channel message boards to answer questions under the handle “Mrs. Ron.” After introducing herself to me, she said

“I just want you to know, we’ve done a million appearances and conventions. But no one has ever done that before.”

“I was happy to,” I hope I said.

“What’s your name?”

“Josh. Bernhard.”

“Thank you, Josh. I’ll make sure he remembers to mention you on the next podcast.”

Awesome.

Russ, Mickey and myself strolled outside, past the crowd surrounding RDM for autographs, and coolly smoked a round of victory cigarettes on the sidewalk. As Mickey remembers it, “You could tell he was standing there surrounded by Trekkies just wanting to come smoke with us.” (No knock on those Trekkies, by the way; I can talk Trek with the best of ’em.)

This went on for quite a while. He signed autographs, took pictures, and spoke to everyone in the crowd. I figured I’d had my time, and it was a better move to stay above the fray. I think I was right. As he was being escorted to a waiting SUV, he stopped to say goodbye to us before being whisked away by mrs. ron.

And we headed back to Binghamton, riding high.

I couldn’t wait for the podcast the following week. Was he going to mention me? Did he forget? I eagerly downloaded the podcast commentary to “Torn,” the sixth episode of season three.

And my heart sank. Well, maybe it didn’t sink, but I was disappointed. Cause RDM was a guest lecturer in a film class at Cornell, had shown the class the new episode a couple days early, and did the podcast while they got to ask questions. An interactive podcast. My dream. If I’d only known, I would have gone back and snuck in!

Whatever. I’d get mine.

Hello and welcome to the podcast. I’m Ronald D. Moore, executive producer and developer of the new Battlestar Galactica and I would like to welcome you to the podcast for episode six, “A Measure of Salvation.” I’m at home, for those of you who monitor such things. I’ve returned from my sojourn to Cornell. The Scotch is Macallan 12 and the smokes are American Spirit Lights, both of which were provided to me. A very generous gift from a student at Cornell named Josh, who came up and gave me both after the end of the lecture that I gave at the Willard Straight Hall at Cornell last week. Which is very kind. I like to see that people are still supporting vice in all forms, evil and bad for you, in the Ivy League.

I was never a student at Cornell, but hey.

Some time later, I came across a posting Mrs. Ron made on the SciFi boards announcing an upcoming appearance RDM was making. She ended the post with

“…and please, no more scotch and cigarettes.”

Share

Thoughts on Pioneer One, plus five.

It was exactly five years ago that I started writing the first documents that would form the basis of PIONEER ONE, the “TV on the web” series that I created and produced with my partner Bracey Smith. (Along with so many, many others who provided invaluable support and resources along the way that I hesitate to name just one because this post will become a list of acknowledgments too long to bear. You guys know who you are.)

Five years. Ancient history in internet time. When we crowdfunded the budget for the pilot on Kickstarter, every plea for a donation had to be followed by an explanation of what Kickstarter was. Today, everyone’s brother and cousin is crowdfunding something on Kickstarter. Lots of things have changed.

Bracey met his wife while making the show, and just welcomed his second daughter into the world last month.

I moved my life from Astoria, New York to Los Angeles, California to pursue a career writing for television. Or film. Or anything with a screen, really. (Fuck it, I’d be happy writing for the Tuscaloosa Community Players if I’m being honest.)

I’ve wanted to write for television since I was 19 years old, but I never had the stones to make the move to LA. Pioneer One got me out here. We were courted by producers of varying stripes trying to reboot the show for television. We’ve had many false starts, and came extremely close a couple of times, only to have things fall apart at the eleventh hour. But then, that’s Hollywood for ya. The odds of the show continuing in any form, either on the web or on television, become increasingly slim with each passing day. But that’s okay. It’s what finally got me to make the leap that I needed to make for my career and for my life.

I do think we were really on to something. The six episodes of that first season still hold up (even the pilot, though it does make me cringe in places). You can see us learning how to make the show with each successive installment, and the finale episode, I think, is as solid an episode of dramatic television as any.

At the 2010 New York Television Festival, where we won for Best Drama Pilot, the show was praised for its originality. But, again, a lot has changed since 2010. Maybe there was something in the ether, who knows. But there have been a lot of shows and movies and books since then that have elements in common with Pioneer One. I’m thinking of shows like THE AMERICANS, an early 80s Cold War thriller, which has certain themes and plot points that would have come up in our second season. The novel THE MARTIAN, about an astronaut stranded on Mars, set to become a movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. Syfy’s ASCENSION, which deals with a secret space mission launched in the 1960s during the height of the Cold War (I mean, come on). A recently announced pilot about a new space race between two private corporations and their billionaire founders written by Eli Attie (THE WEST WING) and produced by Peter Berg (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS). And they just announced that J. Michael Straczynski (BABYLON 5) will be adapting the RED MARS trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson for SpikeTV. (I find it hilarious that in this new phase of jms’s career, there’s nary a mention of B5 in any industry publication regarding him. He’s an A-lister now!)

Does that make more Pioneer One moot? I don’t think so. There’s room for our show in today’s (albeit more crowded) landscape, perhaps with a little emphasis tweaking. But whether or not that happens isn’t up to me at the moment.

For now, my immediate and more achievable goal for Pioneer One is to get Phil Sandifer to do a psychochronographic review of our little show on his TARDIS Eruditorum blog.

And my own immediate goal is to write some new shows.

Here’s the trailer for Pioneer One:

 

Share