Think You've Got a Tricky Staff? Try Juggling Writers, Deadlines
By EMILY NELSON
BURBANK, Calif. -- After struggling all morning to come up with a plot for the season-finale episode of the television series "Everwood," the seven writers around the conference-room table suddenly hit their stride. Ideas for dialogue and story lines flowed. That's when head writer Greg Berlanti ended the meeting. "Same time tomorrow, folks," he said cheerily. It was just after 4 p.m.
This was a deliberate strategy: "I try to leave on a successful note," Mr. Berlanti says. He thinks his writers produce their best work when they feel upbeat -- and that's not always easy to do when the job is coming up with ideas for a teen drama, a well-plowed genre.
Mr. Berlanti, 30 years old, manages an unusual process: He is the "show runner" on a hit TV series. That means he's the show's head writer, but he also oversees the cast, crew and production team, as well as acting as liaison with bosses from the studio and network. He must churn out 22 episodes during the TV season, from September through May. That comes to a 52-page script every eight days, or the equivalent of producing about 10 movies a year. The challenge for Mr. Berlanti, whose official title is executive producer, is to get his writers to create a consistent product without stifling their creativity.
In popular imagination, Hollywood is a place where creative divas rage against corporate bosses and flout deadlines. But this is modern-day TV, the entertainment industry's workhorse, and Mr. Berlanti's star is rising not just for his creative abilities, but also for his management skills. In fact, he is a lot like middle managers everywhere: He has some autonomy but not complete freedom. He must keep happy the people below and above him. And he has to keep his eye on the big picture while juggling looming deadlines on multiple projects.
Above him are executives from Warner Bros. Television, which produces the show, and the WB Network, which broadcasts it. Both are part of entertainment and Internet giant AOL Time Warner Inc. Executives from both the studio and the network read script outlines, demand changes and have to approve plot developments that require extra money -- such as a guest star or an elaborate set. For Mr. Berlanti, this has meant learning how to horse trade -- negotiating for some ideas while sacrificing others. With about 100 people working under him on each episode, he has had to learn to delegate. And the writers, a collection of fragile egos, require extra attention.
Planning for the finale, which runs this coming Monday, began last February. Mr. Berlanti assembled his team in the writers' room, a conference room lined with dry-erase boards charting plot lines and characters. One Monday at 11 a.m., Mr. Berlanti leaned back with his running shoes on the table and said, "I want to talk thematically about some of the stuff we've been thinking about this year."
During this, its first season, "Everwood" was praised as a hip and heartwarming portrayal of teenage life in the eponymous fictional mountain town where the show takes place. The hour-long show draws about five million viewers each week, small compared with TV's top drama, "CSI," which draws 26 million. But for the eight-year-old WB network, which has built itself on dramas focusing on preternaturally articulate and attractive teens, it qualifies as a hit.
For the finale, the writers need to do something special. They need a more intricate plot than usual, one that closes some storylines to satisfy viewers -- and leaves others open to keep them intrigued over the summer. The writers have a lot to work with. The show's lead character, Dr. Andy Brown, is coping with the death of his wife. His son, Ephram, has a high-school crush on classmate Amy, but she has a boyfriend, teen heartthrob Colin. And Colin, after spending the first several episodes in a coma, has nearly recovered, thanks to surgery performed by Dr. Brown.
"Amy was somehow more tragic than Andy. What if this episode is all-Amy, in every scene?" said one writer.
"I feel that doesn't close things," Mr. Berlanti said.
"Is there something to playing the same moment each time through a different character?" asked another.
Mr. Berlanti vetoed this, too. He'd tried it once on another show and the artsy structure overpowered everything else.
Mr. Berlanti then asked what each writer wanted from the episode. In the finale, Colin is preparing to have life-saving surgery to complete the first surgery Dr. Brown performed. One writer offered that Colin could have "a perfect day" on the eve of the day he might die. "I'm sensing that most of the episode is the day before," Mr. Berlanti said. On the dry-erase board, he wrote, in red marker: "Themes" and underneath listed "Heroism, Perfect Day, The Day Before."
Mr. Berlanti goes to the board as little and as late as he can because he doesn't want the writers to get attached to one idea. He and Rina Mimoun, his most senior writer, had their biggest fight the day Ms. Mimoun charted out an entire episode on a dry-erase board until the "room smelled like marker," she recalls. He erased it. She admits her instinct was "as soon as you hear something that's a hook, go to the board as soon as possible," she says. Mr. Berlanti has taught her to wait.
On the surface, the work environment is informal -- like college, with jeans, sneakers and late-night pizza. But the writers' rooms can be nerve-wracking. Early on, "I'd leave every day, [wondering] did I talk too much? Did I say enough?" says John E. Pogue, another writer on the show. "It's so subjective. You don't know if you're carrying your weight."
Writers on "Everwood," who generally are assigned to pen individual episodes on their own after the group discussion, are given a high degree of individual authorship compared with many other shows. On "The West Wing," for example, writers researched memos more akin to position papers or speeches for show runner Aaron Sorkin, who wrote virtually every script. Mr. Sorkin decided recently to leave the show, citing exhaustion from all the writing and the pressures of the job. "The West Wing" is now expected to operate more like "Everwood" since the producer taking over, John Wells, runs other shows, such as "ER," that way.
On David E. Kelley's "The Practice," writers individually pitch script ideas and retire to their offices to write them if executive producers approve them. Later, Mr. Kelley puts his imprint on the finished script. On "The Sopranos," show runner David Chase operates similarly to Mr. Berlanti. He and four staff writers outline scenes and some dialogue and rotate script writing, with Mr. Chase editing the scripts the others write.
Mr. Berlanti arrived in Los Angeles in 1995 after graduating from Northwestern University. He did temp jobs while writing movie scripts without any success trying to sell them. Then he got a break: one script of his, "The Broken Hearts Club," a tale of the friendship among a group of gay men in their 20s. The low-budget film played in select theaters in major cities. The show runner of WB hit "Dawson's Creek" read it and hired Mr. Berlanti as a staff writer on the show. A year and some staff turnover later, Mr. Berlanti was tapped to run the show.
After three years on "Dawson's Creek," Mr. Berlanti took a year off to come up with the idea for and pitch "Everwood." He envisioned a show about a father whose wife dies, prompting him to move his family to a small town and reconnect with his children. It would ask the question: "Can negligent parents make up lost time?" Mr. Berlanti says. With "Everwood," Mr. Berlanti felt he had a show that could "evoke sentiment without being cheesy."
Changes to his idea came from high-up and on day one. John Litvack, head of current programming and scheduling for the WB, suggested the lead character be a neurosurgeon instead of a general practitioner because neurosurgeons are the superstars of the field. He also pressed the writers to develop another minor character beyond the simple buffoon he played in the show's pilot.
WB Entertainment President Jordan Levin gave Mr. Berlanti William S. Pollack's best-selling book "Real Boys" about the struggles facing male adolescents. "The emotional vulnerability of boys hasn't been seen on television," Mr. Levin said. He and Mr. Berlanti decided to draw out the character of Ephram to make "Everwood" explore that topic. They would try to attract young male viewers, flouting conventional wisdom and audience testing that says "boys are more comfortable watching boys be tough," Mr. Levin says.
For the season finale, Mr. Berlanti wanted to end with the outcome of Colin's surgery. Mr. Levin insisted that Mr. Berlanti end with a cliffhanger, to leave viewers wondering whether Colin lives or dies until the second season begins in September. The cliffhanger would provide a "big promotional hook," Mr. Levin says.
The network also pushed for Mr. Berlanti to make each episode more self-contained, so viewers could come to it even if they had missed prior shows. The shows play in syndication better that way. Mr. Berlanti complied by starting each episode with a voiceover to catch up viewers on the basic storyline. Each episode also includes a new medical plotline that is resolved by the end.
At times, the network acts like air-traffic control. The WB's Mr. Litvack once told writers on "Dawson's Creek" that they couldn't have a gay character come out of the closet in one episode because another WB show already had a gay character coming out that week.
Mr. Berlanti generally is accommodating to network wishes. "I know it sounds so unartistic. If I can give them what they want, then I can do what I want," Mr. Berlanti says. He persuaded the network to let him include hot-button issues such as abortion, medical marijuana and homosexuality that network TV typically shies away from.
After the first day's discussion about the season finale with the writers, Mr. Berlanti realized the group wanted the episode to show Dr. Brown's fear of performing Colin's surgery. Much of TV writing is figuring out devices where characters can act out their interior thinking. If a character is describing feelings to another, the scene can seem awkward; that's why dream sequences are used so often. During his morning run, Mr. Berlanti came up with an idea: Dr. Brown could visit his old medical-school teacher as an outlet to show his fear.
Mr. Berlanti started the second day in the writers' room with this suggestion. The writers loved it. They tossed out big-name actors to guest star as the mentor. Mr. Berlanti settled on Donald Sutherland, mainly because it would be easier to imagine the episode if everyone had a common picture.
The group then began to hit snags. Mr. Berlanti suggested the Brown family visit the mentor on his old college campus. Does Ephram ask his dad about applying to college? suggested one writer.
"No. That's next year," Mr. Berlanti said.
Should the family drive to the college? They joked about family car rides and kids fighting in the backseat. "If it goes 'Brady Bunch...'" Mr. Berlanti warned.
Then, some progress: Dr. Brown, played by Treat Williams, and his mentor could speak in jargon to show their connection. Colin should spend his perfect day with girlfriend Amy but also with her brother, Colin's best friend, so the storyline is about friendship instead of just teen romance. The teens could go for a hike, showcasing the show's idyllic setting, the writers decided. Meanwhile, Dr. Brown would drive to his medical school campus to visit his mentor. "Everwood" eventually retained veteran character actor Philip Baker Hall for the role.
An assistant, always in the writers' room, recorded all the ideas on his laptop. A white board in the corner was mapped with each character, in a different color marker, atop a column of what happens to him or her in each episode.
By the end of the week, Mr. Berlanti had "beats," the episode's various scenes and encounters, drafted on the board. He spent the weekend making an outline for studio and network executives.
In a 15-minute conference call for "notes," or feedback, the following week, the studio's senior vice president of current programs, Melinda Hage, raved, "It's such a perfect culmination." Her one suggestion was for Dr. Brown, who has had some flirty tension with his neighbor Nina all season. She asked, "I was looking for a big kiss here. But anyway we could see a little more here?" Mr. Berlanti, who has resisted addressing the tension all season, said, "We have another half year of tension.... But we could make more of their last moment." Mr. Berlanti added in a few pregnant glances between the characters.
When network executive Mr. Litvack read the outline, he asked Mr. Berlanti: "Where's Colin's story?" The character appeared too passive, he cautioned. Mr. Berlanti defended his plot, arguing that having Colin and the teens go on a hike including Amy's dad would distinguish "Everwood" from other teen-centric shows where the parents typically don't play a big role.
Mr. Berlanti divvied up the outline. While he normally would assign the show to just one person, for the season finale he turned to his three strongest writers: one would do the voiceover at the beginning of the show, another the teens' dialogue and another the scenes between Ephram and Dr. Brown's mentor. Mr. Berlanti would weave it together as well as write the scene where Dr. Brown teaches Ephram to drive and another in which the mentor advises Dr. Brown not to operate.
About 10 days later, the writers turned in their drafts to Mr. Berlanti, who offered notes, and returned it to them for another draft. Meanwhile, they were also in production on earlier episodes.
When Mr. Berlanti went over the draft with Ms. Mimoun, however, he realized that the hiking scenes came across as "slightly too sweet, slightly inactive," he says. "The network was right."
So, searching for a new idea with just 48 hours until deadline, Mr. Berlanti and Ms. Mimoun pulled up the notes from the days in the writers' room. They came across an idea that was tossed aside: having the kids go to a graduation party. As they worked, they checked in with the other writers in conference calls.
Mr. Berlanti holed up for the weekend with "a lot of coffee" and churned out a sequence where Colin takes his friends to a stadium the night before graduation. The setting accomplishes the same goals as the hike: showcasing the teens' friendship and setting up heart-to-heart conversations.
As he tweaked each draft of the script, Mr. Berlanti leaned on his writers as an ersatz test audience. "Everwood" episodes can verge on soap opera, mainly because the show focuses on characters and their relationships. But the scripts become less sappy with each rewrite, what Mr. Berlanti calls "a de-sentimentalizing or a de-maudlining process or a de-bad joking." The final script also included notes to the director, such as "The convertible rushes down the empty stretch of road. Amy in the passenger seat, Bright [her brother] in the back. Hair whipping in the wind, radio on.... This is what youth's about."
Mr. Berlanti says he includes such notes "as a readers' advisory" for the network and studio executives reading the script. "It's almost a protective device," he says, otherwise "I'll have to spend a 'notes' call explaining to them, 'No, no, no. We meant this.' "
The episode ends with Dr. Brown leaving the operating room after Colin's brain surgery, his footsteps approaching the hospital waiting room where the other characters have assembled to learn the operation's outcome.
To add to the suspense, the WB let it slip on fan sites and in news reports that Mike Erwin, the actor who plays Colin, is appearing in the pilot for another show, leading viewers to think he'll die in surgery. Very few pilots actually turn into series, though, so a mere pilot appearance actually doesn't ensure an actor a job. Savvy viewers have already noted this on fan Web sites. Still, Ms. Mimoun got a call from her mother who reported that kids on Internet chat boards think Colin will die. How can they fear Colin will be killed off, Ms. Mimoun asks, when he's got all the qualities of longevity in the teen TV world: "He's a good-looking male character on the WB."