How to Write a Television Series

Originally published on FilmDungeon.com on 24-12-2007

As a lifelong devotee of the moving image, I developed the idea of writing screenplays. What better way is there to get your break into movies when you’re a non-professional that wants to be a filmmaker? I had already written a movie screenplay. A low-budget horror-comedy comparable with Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste. The problem with actually filming it was that a considerable budget was required. I am from the Netherlands where even renowned filmmakers struggle to get another project done. So who was going to invest in a cult film with a microscopic target group and an inexperienced director?

It was time for a strategy change. TV-series are the next best thing. And being the creator of a TV-series is what many would call a dream job. So would I. You get to write and produce a mini-movie every week, and when successful, you can continue it for as long as a decade. So I decided to start the creation of my very own TV-series. I already knew my subject. Or concept if you will. Now I needed some ideas on how to craft my screenplay.

To get this done I bought a book: The Sopranos – Selected Scripts From Three Seasons. This is an extremely useful book for aspiring TV-writers. But knowing the show is probably a prerequisite. It describes the process of writing a series. The creator of the show, David Chase, explains how he came up with the overall theme of every season. Then, together with his writing team, he started working on the individual episodes. Every episode has three or four storylines. One major storyline called A. Then there are smaller ones called B, C and sometimes D.

Once the storylines were decided, the actual scenes were described. The five example screenplays in the book are in between 35 and 80 scenes long, and approximately 60 pages (1 hour of TV). When the scenes for every story were decided they are sequenced in a logical order. Then the episodes were divided among the writers. They had approximately two weeks to come up with the first draft. Then the show’s creator read it and gave the writer feedback on what he liked and didn’t like about it. Then the second draft was written and this process continued till the final draft was ready for production.

A great benefit of this book is that it contains five example TV-plays. If you need direction on the format of a TV-screenplay, all you have to do is check out one of these. After finishing the book I was ready to start the creation process of my very own TV-series. First a lot of research had to be done. I collected newspaper articles and started reading books on my subject. I started shaping my fictional world by describing the characters, their life stories and their personality traits.

The research and preparation took me a whole year. Of course I did it all in my spare time. I also had a day job to keep going. After this year I was ready to write an actual episode; the pilot. I wanted to do this in one go, because I thought it would make the writing process easier. So during a holiday in Crete I wrote the pilot script. It was certainly fun to do. But finishing the script was a weird sensation. I was proud that I had not given up, and had now completed it. But I was also wondering if what I wrote was actually any good…

Update 2021
No, that pilot tv-script I wrote is not very good. However, I haven’t lost my passion for this writing business. I recently decided to give it another go. That Bad Taste like script I mentioned earlier, I have decided to rewrite it. And it will be in English, so it is fit for international audiences.

Will it ever be a movie? Small chance. No one will want to produce it, that’s for sure. It’s too weird and has no commercial appeal I think. But if I ever get my hands on some money that has no immediate purpose, I might produce it myself. It has the potential to become a fantastic amateur cult movie.

And I would put it straight on YouTube when it would be done. It would be a lot of fun to make for the voluntary or underpaid cast and crew, that’s for sure. So I take another advice from David Chase, don’t stop believing!

Dungeon Classics #12: Snatch

FilmDungeon’s Chief Editor JK sorts through the Dungeon’s DVD-collection to look for old cult favorites….

Snatch (2000, UK | USA)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Jason Statham, Stephen Graham, Brad Pitt, Alan Ford
Running Time: 104 mins.

Two years after his formidable debut Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie, now one of the hottest new directors around, returned with Snatch: a crime comedy with exactly the same formula. Poker is replaced with bare knuckle boxing, stolen antique rifles became a stolen diamond, and Big Chris is renamed Bullet Tooth Tony. The visual gimmickry is still there. And a few cast members returned, most notably Jason Statham, now as leading man. Ritchie had more money this time around, so he could also hire A-listers like Brad Pitt and Benicio Del Toro. Both are great as usual, but Pitt plays one of his most memorable roles ever as Mickey, a ‘pikey’ boxer with an indecipherable accent. What also returns most prominently is the humour. Snatch has sequences – like the black guys attempt to rob the bookies – that will make you piss your pants. It’s one of the funniest crime movies ever made. And the dialogues are one of a kind. In short, Snatch is 86 carats. Or is it 84?

Dungeon Classics #11: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

FilmDungeon’s Chief Editor JK sorts through the Dungeon’s DVD-collection to look for old cult favorites….

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998, UK)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Nick Moran, Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Jason Statham
Running Time: 107 mins.

Guy Ritchie’s low-budget debut is still his best film, although its hilarious follow-up Snatch comes close. Four friends raise 100.000 pounds to let one of them – card wonder Eddy – participate in the high stakes game of underworld figure Hatchet Harry. They lose 500.000 due to foul play on Harry’s part and have one week to pay back the ‘porn king’ or his enforcers will start collecting their fingers and Eddy’s father’s (played by Sting) pub. This is the beginning of an exhilarating quest for money, featuring dumb criminals, antique rifles and an unconscious traffic warden. Ritchie employs all editing and camera tricks he can come up with which makes the movie – groovily shot in shades of yellow, brown, and grey – a visually rip-roaring experience. The clever screenplay, brilliant soundtrack and delicious cockney accents add to the enjoyment. Not to be missed this one! Allright?

Film Review: The Funeral (1996)


‘One family, one murder, too many lies’

Directed by:
Abel Ferrara

Written by:
Nicholas St. John

Cast:
Christopher Walken (Ray), Chris Penn (Chez), Annabella Sciorra (Jean), Isabella Rossellini (Clara), Vincent Gallo (Johnny), Benicio Del Toro (Gaspare), Gretchen Mol (Helen), John Ventimiglia (Sali), Paul Hipp (Ghouly), Victor Argo (Julius)

Abel Ferrara is an interesting director and The Funeral – his second gangster film after King of New York (1990) – is an a-typical, but interesting film that is set in the 1930’s. Christopher Walken plays Ray Tempio, boss of a mob clan. His young brother was killed and the body is brought to his house where relatives and associates gather for what will be a three day funeral.

Soon, his other brother Chez (Chris Penn) arrives, a hothead who’s mentally unstable. The brothers want to go after the killer and their suspect number one is gangster Gaspare (Benicio Del Toro).

Through flashbacks we learn more about the Tempios although it is hardly information overload. Ferrara and his regular screenwriter St. John are holding back! But first the positive points. The film is shot beautifully. From the images of mourning relations to the gangster nightlife that is portrayed, it all looks stunning. Also, performances are great all around. Two cast members deserve special mention. Chris Penn gives a career best performance as the craziest mobsters ever. And Annabella Sciorra is truly excellent as Ray’s wife Jean, who is openly critical of the gangster lifestyle.

What I am less thrilled about is the build-up. The movie ends with a dramatic act by Chez, but it is not really clear how he comes to this act, apart from the fact that he is crazy. We are not given enough pieces to work out this psychological puzzle. Same for the youth flashbacks from Ray. It is obvious that they have impacted him greatly, but exactly how remains elusive. Is the screenwriting the problem here? Or does Ferrara just enjoy leaving things a little vague? Judging by most of his films, it is the latter. Normally, this is good. A true artist knows as well what to leave out as what to put in. But this time he used the scissors too rigorously.

Rating:

Quote
JEAN: “They’re criminals, and there’s absolutely nothing romantic about it.”

Trivia
In 2009, Empire Magazine named The Funeral #16 in a poll of the ‘20 Greatest Gangster Movies You’ve Never Seen (Probably)’.