Friday, 27 November 2015

Revisit: The Script Exec's Nativity Play review

It's been some years since I wrote this, but next week I am fronting up to my four year old Nephew's ballet recital. In light of this - and the nearing of Christmas, I thought it was the perfect time to revisit a blog entry I wrote years ago. Perhaps it's time for Kenneth to cover other local events?


                                                                                       Kenneth James
                                                                                       Network Script Executive
                                                                                       Malapert Entertainment
Mrs Jean Barber,
Director of Activities
Argyle Street Kindergarten
14 Argyle Street

Dear Jean,

            Recently I attended your Nativity play, entitled ‘Argyle Kinder’s Nativity Play’. My four year old son, Dalton, played Wise Man # 2 or Frankincence Man. I thought as a professional courtesy I’d send along my thoughts.
Firstly your title needs work and I feel this may be the cause of the empty seat situation. Something with ‘Quest’ in the title may be the answer or even ‘Star of the Night’ to tap into the popularity of the Idol/Got Talent phenom. People always like the ‘hero emerging’ tale which is why they go for these shows, but in storytelling terms we're in the realm of the Matrix or Harry Potter.

The Logline on your flier really needs work; ‘The Birth of Jesus’. There’s no real hook here, so what? When my son arrived, the build-up admittedly was extraordinary, then he just lay there for months, couldn’t even lift his head. I question if Jesus is your protagonist? Try: A working class family struggle to make ends meet until they discover their newborn son is the answer to their prayers. Now I’m interested – what are they going to do with him? How does he answer their prayers? Maybe they enter him in a ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ type show? The point is I want to find out.

Now to the play itself – I didn’t feel the characters of Mary or Joseph are fully fleshed out. You say Joseph is a carpenter but we never really see this. Surely, given his wife is pregnant he could fashion some kind of cart for her to ride in behind the donkey?

Also, Mary really just sits passively and allows things to happen to her. She needs to be pro-active. Possibly when she’s denied a room in the hotel she can purposefully choose the stable as a protest. On the doorstep of the hotel, bedding down in squalor she could actively demonstrate the hotel’s heartlessness. I could see a whole Norma Rae sequence here that would open this up to a much wider female demographic. A quick note of warning on this, her demands need to be reasonable – we don’t want Mary coming off as a strong armed feminist.

The setup of the first act seems rushed. We’re given a large amount of information about a census in a quick narrative. Of course rule number one is show, don’t tell, so I would suggest we see the family at home, Joseph at work, Mary in the kitchen and they’re complaining about the bills, the neighbours, Joseph’s a little stressed by his work – maybe a dovetail joint that's just not coming together.

There’s an opportunity for some humour with heavily pregnant Mary, perhaps a sudden craving for an egg and bacon roll. How would Joseph react to this and in his very orthodox neighbourhood mayhem ensues as he tries to fill Mary’s request. We want people relating to these two as real people, so when the demand comes to travel to Bethlehem for the census we know how inconvenient this is for them.

The transition into the second act seems arbitrary. Where are the hurdles of the decision? Where are their alternative choices? Do they go to be counted or blow the Romans off and at what risk if they do? I would go with Joseph fashioning a cart, perhaps he could tie the whole trip into a work opportunity to expand his business into carts, giving us more inroads into the aspirational middle class demographic. Has he considered being a new cart dealer? There’s always good mileage in the banter of an unscrupulous salesman.

And have you missed a moment at the birth? Joseph's elation as he declares, "He has my eyes!" And a knowing look from Mary. I wouldn't overplay this, but let the observant in on the joke.

The conflict over the hotel room is well handled, except you miss a perfect opportunity for Mary and Joseph to seed a payback moment with the manager, ala ‘Pretty Women’. Imagine Mary with the glowing newborn in her arms striding back to the manager in his lobby – “Your hotel could have had free advertising for the rest of time, but you turned me away. Big mistake. Huge!” This could well become the most quoted moment if handled correctly.

The three wise men seem to be lost in a field, making me wonder whether you’re being ironic with their titles. They follow a bright star to the manger and hand over expensive gifts. I understand what you’re going for here, but it stretches believability that anyone can pinpoint a single dwelling from the rays of an orb millions of light years away. Why not a flaming meteorite? Doesn’t have to be large and it could literally explode into the manger and set the place on fire. This would appeal to action fans and serve as a metaphor regarding the role of Jesus to come – a hint towards a sequel.

Your final act, while well intentioned – savior of the world, leader of mankind, here to guide and redeem us, blah blah blah, worries me because of the passivity of the characters. You’ve told us Jesus is the chosen one so let’s see some of that in him. Dare I say – “Look who’s talking”. I really think there's a possibility of eight or nine passes with this as a franchise if played right – “The Diary of a Whimpy Jew”. The sky’s the limit if you’re willing to consider what I think is no more than a tweak towards your next draft.

Looking forward to seeing what you come up with.



Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Art of Photobombing #3

 This is the best Photobomb ever!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Moonman - In production

(Written September 19, 2015 - the reason this post was not posted at the time it was written is from a publicity embargo. We were asked to say nothing about the show and that request was in place until the Network begins its own publicity for the show.)

"ABC COMEDY SHOWROOM brings together some of Australia’s best comic talent for six new pilots, each the first episode of a brand new sitcom. ABC audiences will get to vote via ABC iview for the shows they want back as full series. The move is similar to Amazon’s pilot vetting process and UK network Channel 4’s Comedy Showcase.
  • EDDIE PERFECT: THE FUTURE IS EXPENSIVE Creator, writer and star Eddie Perfect (Offspring, Playschool) navigates modern life as a husband and father, never sure if the absurdity around him is really happening. Directed by Matthew Saville. Produced by Rosemary Blight and Lauren Edwards for Goalpost Pictures. Executive Producers for Goalpost: Kylie Du Fresne and Ben Grant.
  • KATE MCCARTNEY & KATE MCLENNAN’s BLEAK From The Katering Show team – the definitive look at losing your job, catching your boyfriend f*cking someone else, and moving back with your parents – all on the same day. Created, written by and starring Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney. Directed by Kate McCartney. Also stars Shane Bourne, Brooke Satchwell, Jean Kittson, Toby Truslove and Sammy J. Co-produced by McCartney and McLennan for Lead Balloon. Produced by Laura Waters and Jessica Leslie for Princess Pictures.
  • RONNY CHIENG: INTERNATIONAL STUDENT The Daily Show (US)’s Ronny Chieng comes home to star in his hilarious tale of moving from Malaysia to go to uni in Australia. Created and written by Ronny Chieng & Declan Fay. Directed by Jonathan Brough. Produced by Donna Andrews for Sticky Pictures.
  • THE LETDOWN From the producers of The Chaser, the story of a struggling new mum and the local Mothers’ Group she thinks she doesn’t need. Created & written by Alison Bell & Sarah Scheller. Stars Alison Bell, Noni Hazlehurst. Directed by Trent O’Donnell. Produced by Julian Morrow and Martin Robertson for Giant Dwarf.
  • LAWRENCE MOONEY: MOONMAN Lawrence Mooney bums through life as a hard-partying latenight radio host, until news from his long-suffering girlfriend turns life upside down. Also stars Ian Smith (Neighbours), Elise Jansen. Produced by Joe Connor and Jen Livingston for Renegade Films. Directed by Clayton Jacobson. Created & written by Scott Taylor.
  • THE LEGEND OF GAVIN TANNER From the makers of DAFUQ?, and based on the hit webseries – Balladeen, WA’s crappiest pot dealer Gavin Tanner (Matt Lovkis) sets out every week to prove he’s the biggest legend in town. Always with disastrous results. Created, written and directed by Matt Lovkis and Henry Inglis. Produced by Lauren Elliott for Mad Kids."

Moonman, Episode one has been shot. We finished the shoot yesterday.

The quick back story goes like this - Moonman was commissioned by ABC Australia in February 2014. This means it was commissioned for development with an end goal of on air early 2016.

Development was no guarantee - we'd reach a point where the network would agree for us to go forward or not.

Somewhere in the middle of 2014 we went from heading to a series to heading to one of six separate shows, all getting a single pilot episode and then hoping to be given the nod to go forward into a series. six companies submitting six different pilots. From these, we guess, the ABC will decide how many go on to a series - hopefully they all will.

We made it through development and reached the green light for a pilot and that pilot completed shooting on 18th of September 2015.

Now we wait for the network and the audience to decide our fate. Does the world want to find out what happens to Moonman and his girlfriend, Kate, beyond the pilot episode - time will tell.

Read the full Moonman road to production story here: 

Here's the behind the scenes from the pilot.

Our Cast.

Day 1 Shoot
Moonman AKA Lawrence Mooney is on set.

And quickly on a Segway.

The bum, Hugh Marchant, waits to greet Moonman at the bus stop.

Jojo's Kebabs - Jojo played by Blessing Mokgohloa.

Moonman's Director, Clayton Jacobson, story boarding scenes.

Day 3 - Radio station.

The brilliant Ian Smith is a hit with the ladies.

A run in with taxi drivers becomes a running gag.

The infamous pedophile in the park scene.

Watching the live feed with producer, Jen Livingston.

The Saturday before the the first Monday of the shoot and still working on the final scene to get a tick from the ABC.

Outside the suburban Moonman house - the crew invades.

The crew tents nearby.

EP Joe Connor, Jen Livingston, Production Designer Robbie Perkins and Clayton Jacobson discuss an upcoming scene.

Joe and Jen watching scenes as they're shot.

Moonman is arrested - and so his saga begins.

You can't outrun police forever, Moonman!


Update 27-4-2016 - Moonman is now live on ABC Australia's streaming platform. Watch it here!  It goes out on ABC - free to air on June 1st. Enjoy!
I met Lawrence Mooney doing standup in 2008. We crossed paths on the circuit a few times before coming together again on Channel Seven's The Bounce with Peter Hellier. Lawrence was one of the writers and I came on board late as the Script Producer.

The show lasted five episodes. When the show was axed and I was called into Rick McKenna's office, the show's EP, he tongue in cheek started with - "Things were going well until you showed up." We laughed, but once again I was out of work.

The good to come of it was Lawrence and I had discovered we shared the same sense of humour and while Peter was rehearsing his monologue and checking clips as one of the shows producers, the rest of us would do a tech run in studio, me on the autocue as Lawrence filled in for Peter. He would adlib into the live mike for levels and only those with studio headphones could hear the rubbish he was spouting - it was funny rubbish.

I had seen a number of his MICF shows and felt he was being overlooked by many. The networks used him to fill in gaps but never really gave him his big break. And the work he had been given didn't suit his brash, cheeky and dangerous sense of humour.

He was also 44 and about to get married. He was funny, had a huge intellect and was over so many contentious issues in a compassionate and considerate way.

His wife, Lou, was successful, funny and equally intelligent. It set my mind racing. There was a show in this man and his mid life crisis-ish existence. He liked to party. It wasn't out of control continual partying, but when he partied he partied far too hard, like he was trying to wring out the last bit of the twenty year old he had left in him.

It was the middle of 2010 and an idea was swimming in my head. It took another two years for it to find a setting and a form and I began to write. It wasn't frenetic or obsessive like some ideas that shriek at you to be written. This was a slow burn.

By July 2013 I had written a first draft - I called it Moonman, using his nickname, and I sent it to Lawrence attached within a Facebook message.

At the time Lawrence was now married, had a baby, and he and Lou were moving house. After four weeks without a reply I sent him a phone message asking if he'd read the pilot? I was worried he might have thought it such an outrageous idea he didn't know how to tell me he wasn't interested. He messaged back that he was finishing off the brand new show he was compering on ABC 2, Dirty Laundry Live, he'd just had a baby and was in the middle of moving house. Sitting down to read a spec script wasn't something he had time for and he promised to read it ASAP.

A week later, now late August he contacted me and we arranged to meet, now the beginning of September 2013.

We met at a cafe and I went through the series as I had it in my head. At that stage it was eight episodes. We also talked of our careers. I had taken a job bus driving to pay the bills as writing work had dried up completely. I vowed to spend every other moment writing ideas I truly believed in. There comes a point in everyone's career where you have to back yourself or wither creatively. To do this you have to be prepared to discover no-one wants what you're selling. It's scary, but it's the only way to succeed under your own name.

I'd been driving the bus since the beginning of 2013. This amused Lawrence - did he really want his career in the hands of a bus driver? As we chatted we discovered our career paths were not dissimilar, many stops and starts and breakthroughs that didn't really amount to anything secure or ongoing.

By the end of that meeting we agreed to try and get the idea up. He was incredibly enthusiastic from that moment on.

In August I had an email from Joe Connor of Renegade Films. He was replying to an email I'd sent about possible work over 12 months before.

I had been sending resumes and feelers to literally hundreds of people since 2008, when work dried up for me. During the American writer's strike I was phoned by Sony TV about running one of their shows, an idea that didn't last as long as the strike and I was almost thankful because my Writer's Guild membership meant I would have had to turn down the biggest opportunity of my career. But home in Australia, no one was calling.

I emailed back and forth with Andrew Denton's PA for around six months, but it led to nothing and I had a meeting postponed every month for six months with Playmaker Media, who I would have killed to work for, but eventually in February 2013 they said there would be no meeting. Of the hundreds of feelers I put out, they were the only two to even respond.

So when Joe emailed back in August saying he'd just found my email from 2012 and realised he'd never replied, and, out of guilt, wondered if we should meet, I kept that offer safe.

Lawrence had been working with Peter Hellier again on It's a Date at Princess Pictures and I did some homework into a number of production companies to find out what each had on their slate. Together we decided both would be a good fit, but I wanted to try Renegade first.

I rang Joe and got his PA and told her Joe and I had traded emails - sort of true - and I wanted to speak to him about a project. She put me through to Joe.

I launched into a 40 second pitch of the show and was met with a pause, then Joe asked - "Who are you, again?" I reminded him of his email and after we chatted for a few more minutes about my pitch, he invited me in to chat.

The meeting was no more than an introduction and a handover of material; a pilot episode. He was about to leave for MIP in Cannes, a producer's conference where new shows are pitched to buyers, so he explained he'd hand the script to his head of development and get in touch when he arrived home towards the end of October.

I chased that up in late October and told him I was ready for a full pitch of the idea with additional material. A meeting that would include Lawrence who was now onboard as co-creator.

The idea of a show about Lawrence, starring Lawrence as Lawrence was mine and I had to twist his arm about two degrees to get him to agree. But it was never his intention to have such an ego driven vehicle - he would have preferred to play a character - not himself. But I was adamant it allowed us the luxury of melding reality and fiction and he understood immediately the advantages. While I may have set the ball rolling, Lawrence's input through development from the moment he signed on has been and continues to be invaluable.

At the last minute Lawrence booked work narrating Brynne Edelsten's "My Bedazzled Life" - and he had to cancel on the meeting as he'd be in Sydney.

Getting meetings with producers is hard - so I wasn't about to cancel. I let Joe know Lawrence had been booked elsewhere, but I don't think having a star who's too busy is ever a problem to be honest, so Joe was happy to meet with just me.

I went in with everything I had, including storyboards of the major moments of the series and a taste of the style I was going for.

Pitching is a really difficult thing. I've done it close to fifty times to either producers or networks. Half with my projects and half with projects for production companies I was working in development for.

In a pitch meeting, I estimate you have about 30 seconds of sway. Sway meaning they are open to an idea. In that 30 seconds you need to convey clearly the concept, style, tone and market reach and do it in such a way that you get them excited. That's not the end of the meeting, but if you haven't grabbed them by then, clearly letting them know exactly what it is they're being pitched, they'll read it as an idea not ready, and equally terrifying, if you do convey what you have - they may just not like it. And all that happens in the first 30 seconds.

Even if you have them after that initially moment and they still have a spark of 'maybe' in their eyes, there are so many ways you can drop them off. One wrong word, a negative spin in their mind and that spark can vanish. When and if that happens you need to be able to shift and change direction to try and get them back and if you haven't done so within about another minute, you have to accept the dullness in their eyes is saying no and cut things short in order to preserve the relationship for another shot or, pitch something else and fast.

Happily Joe had a spark in his eye. The story boards made a real difference as he could instantly picture what I was after and each new panel gave him a little chuckle. A good pitch meeting is like being high - so people who know that sort of thing tell me. 

Joe took everything away, including a number of important scenes from further episodes within the series.

A week later he called and wanted to set a meeting with me and Lawrence. A few days later we were back in the office and with Lawrence showing his enthusiasm we had our Producer and one of the best independent production houses in Australia taking on Moonman.

Then for the first time in my career I had some luck. Lawrence was getting hot at the ABC. Their new comedy panel show - Dirty Laundry Live - had taken off. It had done well enough in its first season that Lawrence was their new go to man. He was booked to MC the 2014 ABC season launch in November of 2013. At some stage the head of the ABC, Mark Scott, asked him what he wanted to do beyond Dirty Laundry Live and Lawrence casually dropped that he had a sitcom in development with Renegade.

The ABC contacted Joe at Renegade almost immediately about a meeting they had previously organised where Joe was set to pitch new Renegade projects, projects that didn't include Moonman as it was so new to their slate. The ABC asked for Moonman to be included.

Joe called me while I was parked at the Mordialloc stop at the end of the Melbourne 903 bus run I was driving. 
"Did I have an objection to him pitching Moonman to the ABC at his meeting."
I told him to go right ahead.

He did and he handed over all the material I had given him relating to the show.

The ABC got back to Joe within 24 hours and told him they wanted to see more scripts. Joe had told them this wouldn't be a problem, thinking the selected scenes he'd read were part of further scripts. They weren't. We had a moment of dead air. The ABC wanted to read at least two more episodes that didn't exist - and they wanted them by Monday.

This was also the moment I knew what sort of man I was dealing with in Joe. During the conversation, and realising the ABC were getting excited, he raised the issue that he and I had nothing in writing.

"Should I be worried about that?" he asked. 

I assured him he didn't need to worry and on the strength of our word, we continued on a handshake until well after a deal was in place. That's rare in any business deal these days. We both, at certain times, could have screwed each other as our positions of advantage shifted. We never did. That trust and good will has remained so no amount of squabbling over creative differences between us has come close to undermining our relationship. If the show ever becomes a success, that moment is partly, if not wholly responsible for it.

But I was faced with writing episodes two and three in a weekend. Fortunately I wasn't driving the bus over that weekend, given bus driving is a seven day rotating roster. I had from Friday night to Monday morning to get it done.

I used a lot of caffeine and by Monday, before leaving to drive the bus at 4.30am, I emailed Joe episodes two and three.

This was now around the first week of December 2013. Then everything went quiet. I told myself it was the Christmas break, but the rush to write those episodes niggled at me. 

The silence lasted through January.

During the first week of February 2014 Joe rang me and asked where I was. I was at Heidelberg station with 3 whole minutes to kill before heading up Manningham road with passengers to Doncaster. 
"You're about to be a full time writer again," he said. It turned out to be wildly optimistic regarding the time, but he'd just been told Moonman had a green light and we would be on the main channel, prime time. 

I left a message on Lawrence's answering service:
"Question? What Australian comedian has his own show, starring him, about him coming soon to ABC 1?"
When Lawrence rang back we organised a celebration.

Rick Kolawski and Brett Sleigh from the ABC joined our development team. It was myself, Lawrence, Joe Connor who would be our EP and Jen Livinston as Producer. The first thing Rick did was set out a timeline - the very earliest we'd be on air was the first half of 2016. My heart sunk. Do you have any idea how many hours driving a public transport bus that equates to? Everyone, including the ABC, knew I was driving a bus and were happy to work around my roster, so I was effectively locked in to continue my Altona to Mordialloc joyrides for another two years.

Development isn't ever easy, but every one in those meeting seemed to be on board with the show I set out to write. That's an incredible feeling to have started something that so many people buy into. Rick and Brett, over eighteen months and around two dozen drafts never once imposed ideas on us. They often said something didn't work or something was missing and then let us go away and find a solution that would either sink the project or get a tick.

We faced quite a few of those development hurdles, including a large chunk of funding being taken away from the ABC by he who shall not be named. It's true, so I'm told by the spin doctors, the loss of that funding didn't effect on air content, but it sent significant shock waves through anything in development.  

In June 2014 we finally had a meeting with Rick and Brett from the ABC that had been put off a number of times and had gone from a phone conference call to a face to face meeting. We were incredibly stressed and ready for bad news. It never came. My new draft of the script was well received, but we heard, for the first time, about a series of pilots, rather than a whole series. It wasn't in concrete, but there was an idea to air a series of 5 or 6 pilots comedies, one a week, and we were in that mix.

Right then, my Brain decided to take a holiday - literally. On June 25th 2014 I went to the gym before work and came out to wander the streets in a haze. I made around 20 phonecalls, 5 of them to work. I only know this from my phone call logs. Apparently I rang my bus supervisor 5 times with the same message. Eventually he realised something was very wrong and told me not to hang up. He asked what I could see and I told him I was near a shop. Still on the phone, he walked me to the shop assistant and told them to call for medical assistance.

I was diagnosed by two doctors as having a stroke and was taken to the Epworth hospital. Around four hours later a neurologist re-diagnosed me as having Global Transiant Amnesia. The stress had re-booted my brain and I simply lost five to six hours where I remember nothing. I found some irony in this given I was the person who gave Harold amnesia to bring him back onto Neighbours in the mid nineties. Karma comes with a big kick.

Terrified having a head writer who was diagnosed first with a stroke, and then confirmed as having a serious brain fade, may cause such a huge project to be taken out of my hands, I kept the news from everyone but my agent. A week later I handed in the re-draft off the back of our ABC meeting and it received the sort of praise you always wish for as a writer. I was thrilled - more because it meant my brain and all it's oddness had come back to me without any residual affect.  

Around March 2015 the pilot season had come to the fore and we now backed away from episodes two and three. They were at a completed first draft stage with script fees already paid out of the Film Victoria funding. We went back into strengthening the first episode. The hope it would kick into a series was still alive but now we were in competition with some other very strong projects. Some sourced from the internet or the comedy festival and some, like ours, always intended as a TV pilot for a series.

Film Victoria Funding Announcement

Still driving the bus, I have spent almost two years getting to a break or the end of a run and madly returning calls or sending crucial emails to sort something out or set meetings. This last two weeks I have been pulling up audition tapes sent to me of actors being tested. This has become so common that the surreal nature of it has faded. 

The number of times I've come to the end of the line with ten or fifteen minutes break to email Rick or Brett at the ABC or Lawrence or a well known actor or someone else about important production issues, and then have a passenger tap on the door to remind me I'm meant to depart in 2 minutes and can they get on to find a seat, is too many to count.

Clayton Jacobson came on board as our director about two months ago, July 2015 and Jaime Brown has joined a month before that as a vitally important member of our writing team. Both have made significant contributions to the show's development, particularly the visual aspects and Jaime has helped us beef up the gags as his editing added even more to a tight pilot script.

Clayton and Lawrence around the table of pain.

And that brings me to this week when the final piece to something that started as an insane idea in my head fell into place. At least I hope it has... I'm still waiting for it to be confirmed, but the only other named actor in that original idea has finally seen the light, after playing hard to get because of the risky, boundary pushing role he was being asked to play. 

It brings he and I full circle from my time on that other show I got to play around with almost two decades ago. I am hoping - once he's confirmed - it may be a parody of his very famous alter ego that invites him, after many years, to come and play with the cool kids. I would get a great deal of satisfaction if it also gave his career a whole new lease of life as he heads towards retirement.

We start shooting September 14 and who knows when it will air. But if you're a fan of Curb, Extras, Entourage and the like - this one could be for you.

                                       Moonman - coming soon to ABC TV.   
Written 28/8/2015.

Here's more on the production shoot: