ANSWERING (ALMOST) ANYTHING
Welcome to our inaugural “Ask Me (Almost) Anything” segment. I would exactly say I was overwhelmed with questions, but the ones I received were good ones.
Norman Anderson asks: “Is there a specific dynamic that you enjoy writing for? Like interpersonal relationships or story arcs for characters. I find those quite challenging and I wonder if you have a favorite?”
My writing style lends itself to a fair amount of banter. I aspire to be like Aaron Sorkin, writing smart people saying smart things. I got into writing mainly so I could spend time with people — and characters — smarter than myself, so I lean into those kinds of characters and relationships.
Amy asks: “I was wondering if you could redo any storyline on Arrow what would it be and why?”
Oh boy. Twitter will have a field day with this one. And I also look forward to the clickbait articles with the headline: “Guggenheim Admits Arrow Mistakes.”
But to answer your question…
First off, I should say that there isn’t a single thing I’ve ever written or produced that I wouldn’t like to get another at-bat on in some way, shape, or form. After something gets released into the world, you begin to notice a million things — large and small — you wish you’d changed or had time to change. Arrow is, for me, like that on steroids.
That being said, it will probably come as no surprise that I’d love to redo the Oliver/Felicity storyline in Season 6. I’ve said this before in public, but that storyline suffered, ironically, from us adhering too closely to the plan we’d arced out at the beginning of the season. Rather than let the story unfold naturally, we were too rigorous in hitting specific beats at specific pre-set times. Moreover, it was an extremely challenging year. The show had always been difficult to produce from a budgetary standpoint, but it became — for a variety of reasons — exponentially harder to stretch a dollar and make sure that dollar got on the screen. As a result, I don’t feel that Season 6 always had the same scope and production value that other seasons of Arrow had. That said, I was still very pleased with our Season Premiere and Season Finale — both directed by the immensely talented James Bamford — and the episode where we repurposed actual Billy Joel concert footage from Long Island checked many, many bucket list boxes for me.
Nandini Bapat asks: “What [is] your process … to breaking a new pilot -- particularly for a more serialized project. Do you break down the first season by episode or by character? How do you determine what should happen in the pilot? Then how do you break down the pilot before you begin writing? What are the things you like to know before getting started?”
This is a great question, particularly because it gets at a reality of TV development, to wit: Unless I’m writing a pilot on spec, the first step to developing a new show isn’t the pilot itself but, rather, the pitch for the show. So, with that in mind, I’ll answer each of Nandini’s questions individually:
DO YOU BREAK DOWN THE FIRST SEASON BY EPISODE OR BY CHARACTER?
That depends on two factors: Is the show character-driven or concept-driven? How long are the seasons intended to be? As a general rule, the only thing I’m dogmatic about is NOT having general rules. I really try to design each pitch/show to play to the specific strengths and/or demands of the show I’m developing. And sometimes I discover that I need to mix it up. For example, I’m currently working on PROJECT GRANITE, a pitch for a very concept-driven show. There’s a lot of mythology involved in it and my initial inclination was to front-load all that stuff. But upon reflection, I realized that I was overthinking the mythology — how detailed it had to be and how important it is to the pitch — at the expense of fleshing out my protagonist. So I’m not in the process of restructuring and rebalancing.
One more thing: Even if I’m pitching a short order series, I’ll never include an episode-by-episode breakdown in the pitch. I may have done that homework, but if I tried to take the execs through the first season one episode at a time, I fear their eyes would glaze over.
HOW DO YOU DETERMINE WHAT SHOULD HAPPEN IN THE PILOT?
Short answer: I have no idea. Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, I just… do.
But that’s a shitty answer so I’ll give you a slightly less shitty one: It depends on the Pilot. First off, is it a “premise pilot?” A premise pilot is a pilot where the show’s premise is established: Flight 815 crashes on a mysterious island. Oliver Queen returns home from a mysterious island. You get the gist.
If it’s a premise pilot, what needs to happen is relatively straightforward: The premise of the show needs to be established by the end. Walter White needs to start cooking meth.
But if it’s not a premise pilot, you have more leeway. That being said, I think the most effective pilots which are not premise pilot nevertheless: (a) dramatize the show’s premise (because… duh) and (b) include some kind of paradigm shift. In terms of “b,” another way to put it is: Why are we choosing THIS particular moment to enter the life/lives of this/these character(s)? For example, the LA Law sequel I’m co-writing isn’t a premise pilot, but it establishes the premise of the show (legal drama in a high-end law firm) while still including a couple of paradigm-shifting moments that create narrative momentum for the rest of the season and also make the story “feel” like a pilot.
WHAT ARE THE THINGS YOU LIKE TO KNOW BEFORE GETTING STARTED?
At a minimum, I need to know who the main characters are, what their most salient qualities are, what they want, and what obstacles and/or people are standing in their way. Plus, the more concept-driven the show is, the more incumbent it is on me to know what the concept is and, more importantly, how best to dramatize it (i.e., introduce it to an audience).
That’s a good place to end, I think. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, smash the comment button above.
In the meantime, I’ll be back with at least one more newsletter issue for the year.
Be good to each other.