Behind the Writers Room
How Real-world Events Effect Change within the TV-world
By: Alex Elias
In my grieving over the tragic passing of legendary actor Bill Paxton, whose new series “Training Day” (10:00pm/Thursday on CBS) has aired less than half its season, I stumbled onto a macabre, but highly interesting subject. As someone deeply interested in what goes on behind the scenes of television, I decided to share with you and that is – how real-world events effect change within the TV world.
The list of actors who have passed-away during the production of a TV series is a short one. According to metv.com, only nine. However, the list of actors portraying the “lead role” in a newly minted primetime drama that died during production is but one. As many articles are rightly discussing the legacy of film Paxton left behind, I have decided to delve into how this tragedy and other similarly unforeseen events may affect an ongoing production – and more specifically, how it affects the writers room.
I was fortunate enough to speak on the matter with Matthew Federman, a writer for another CBS drama and personal favorite of mine “Limitless (Watch it now on Netflix!).” Federman told me that one of the most important takeaways of being a TV writer is the ability to both work with others and adapt to real-world changes that affect the writer’s room. He says that television production is a dynamic and fluid environment. “[Things on set] never go 100% smoothly… if something goes wrong you’re going to need to think quickly on your feet and solve whatever production issues you have, while keeping in mind the larger story.”
When asked for an example, Federman told me about a time on set where they had to scramble to make a change with virtually no warning. “[One] time we had a big scene planned that involved a helicopter…but we found out the chopper wasn’t coming. It broke down. So, we huddled up like a scene from Apollo 13 to figure out what pieces we had that we could use to replace what that scene was meant to do.”
According to Federman, the most difficult changes occur when an actor has to drop out due to unforeseen circumstances which usually means gets sick, injured or has a scheduling conflict. “It generally means a pretty big rejiggering of the plot, if your show has any elements of serialization. Those are the nights when the showrunner tells you to call your loved ones and tell them you won’t be home for dinner.”
Just imagine that a character you had written into every episode of a season is suddenly no longer available; everyone that character would touch…every scene he or she was in becomes null and void. In cases like this, Federman told me that the writers must pool together like Voltron and sometimes come up with a replacement character that serves a similar purpose.
Television fans, including myself, are often extremely quick to blame the writers whenever something happens on a series that leaves us feeling hurt and/or betrayed. The truth is, more times than not, it’s actually not the writer’s fault. Fans might be outraged that one of their favorite characters was written off the show, but maybe the actor in question had a scheduling conflict, became pregnant or in the rare case of Bill Paxton lost a battle to surgery.
The writers we are so quick to blame must account for all of these variables and more as they work tirelessly and under strict deadlines to bring their scripts to completion. On the various shows he has worked on, Federman couldn’t even begin to tell me how many times the writers’ room had finally agreed on something only to find out from the showrunner that circumstances had changed and the production can no longer support or accommodate what was decided upon. He writes, “First season shows are famously exhausting because every shift in vision means a lot of work getting thrown out and the air dates of the show do not move. Sometimes you lose a great moment and you really feel it…If they throw out an entire script, literally months of work from a story area that was written [are] all gone in a second.”
Bearing the blame of the fans is no easy burden to shoulder either. Just ask Kim Shumway, a writer for CW’s “The 100.” In 2016, Kim released a series of tweets where she detailed accounts of receiving an outcry of negative tweets and emails, including death threats because “The 100” had just killed off an LGBTQ character. As circumstances would have it, Kim was not behind the decision to kill off the character but was still the focus of all the hate. And believe me, fans of “ships” (romantic pairing of characters) on dramas are one group of people you seriously do not want to upset.
According to a staff-writer source who asked not to be named, “Writers are always adapting to changes. It’s part of the job. From getting rained out of your sets then suddenly having to write all scenes as being indoors, real-world events cause ripples.” Even small changes still mean changing your vision. Federman provided an example: maybe a location falls through such as a train station and the new one you find has stairs…but they aren’t big enough to do what you originally planned.
No one ever said being a staff-writer for a TV production is easy. A script is more than just a story. Federman says, “It’s a detailed plan that includes locations, props, costumes, vehicles, etc.” Essentially, there are a lot of moving parts and each and any one of them may be subjected to change at the last minute. He told me that a smart thing for a production to do is to have a writer on set or a producer who can write to smooth things over if there isn’t even time to take it back to the writer’s room!
In this harsh writing environment, flexibility as a writer is key, especially when a show airs at the same time as new episodes are being written which is often the case with cable dramas. According to Deadline.com, Bill Paxton had already shot the entire season of “Training Day.” TMZ interviewed the series creator, Will Beall, who stated that at the end of the season they do a perfect “send-off” for the character – leaving to our imaginations what exactly that may entail. Lastly, Beall said that to honor Paxton, they would not be replacing the character.
But just imagine for a moment that Paxton had not finished shooting the season and that all thirteen episodes had already been written. The writers would then have to go back in and rewrite every episode following his last appearance – this time without Paxton’s character. While this is an extreme example, as you can see situations effecting change like this are a regular part of a writer’s job, one that they must take into account. As fans of television, we really don’t have a clue what goes on behind the scenes.
I recall that last year “The Blacklist” ended up doing an entire storyline about Elizabeth becoming pregnant and eventually giving birth to baby Agnes. This entire arc presented itself only when Megan Boone, the actress portraying Elizabeth, became pregnant in real life in the middle of the season. A similar scenario happened on CBS’s “Person of Interest” when Sarah Shahi, who played Shaw, become pregnant. They ended up having her character kidnapped and tortured in a surprisingly similar manner to how Agent May (Ming-Na Wen) is currently being tortured on ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
It is so often the case that writers end up having no-choice, but to fully commit to plots that were never originally intended and they must do their best to ensure a smooth and realistic transition. My unnamed staff-writer source writes, “The deeply unfortunate part is when audiences think that [this] was the plan from the beginning and then attribute motives to the writers because of it. That’s hard. But audiences don’t always get to know the whole story, so that’s part of [our] job, too.”
There are so many levels of constraints that writers must work under, adding on to the pressure of working on a staff, under a tight deadline and at ungodly hours. Federman jokes, “Being in a writer’s room is like getting caught out in the open in a zombie apocalypse – reload and fire.” These types of real-world restrictions aren’t things taught in a classroom. That is why many aspiring writers take jobs as writer’s assistants before moving on to the journey of becoming staff-writers themselves. It is so they can learn the ropes of the job they dream of one day having. The job I dream of one day having. Federman advises, “A big mistake younger writers make is to continually re-pitch an idea that doesn’t land. There are cases where you can try an idea again from a new angle, but if you find yourself pitching it a third time…Well, you probably just shouldn’t.”
If you were to put yourself in the shoes of a staff-writer having to scramble for a new plot in the wake of an extenuating outside circumstance or tragedy – would you be able to do it? As an aspiring screenwriter and author of an original drama pilot, I challenged myself to do just this – to try and come up with a realistic and acceptable way that should Bill Paxton not have finished filming the rest of “Training Day” they could use to continue the show. If you haven’t seen “Training Day,” I’ll do my best to explain things in a way that makes sense. Feel free to sound off in the comments about my idea, and to share any you have.
To begin with, the most important thing to note about “Training Day” is that the title of the show can’t change. Bill Paxton’s character, Frank, is a decorated cop who was in a position to train Kyle Craig (Justin Cromwell), a rookie. Frank was a hardened, willing-to-do-it-all, no bullshit cop who had a penchant for ignoring red tape and putting bad guys out of their misery for good (in the biblical sense). In my hypothetical scenario, as the show has only aired four episodes so far, there hasn’t been enough time to become personally attached to Frank’s character. Rather, at this point, we have taken away aspects of Frank’s personality and persona such as veteran cop, rule breaker, connections with criminal organizations and willingness to do whatever it takes to get things done. If we can introduce a new character that meets all of these criteria, then “Training Day” can continue keeping its original premise.
What if we introduce a character that meets all of these criteria who has just recently ended a two-year stint undercover? This character, let’s call him Robert, was Frank’s ex-partner before Billy (Kyle Craig’s father on the show). Before he started his undercover work, Frank promised Robert a place on his team, should he come back “alive.” The episode begins with a flashback of this promise, followed by Robert successfully taking down the target of his undercover operation. He heads in to the precinct where he meets Kyle and the chief. They receive a phone call from Frank, asking both of them to meet him at a specified location. When they arrive there they are too late and Frank has been killed. These two virtual strangers are then thrown into uncovering the mystery of Frank’s death and why he wanted both of them to meet him there – which is very similar to the current mystery of Kyle wanting to learn about the truth behind his father’s death, something he may never end up discovering without Frank’s help. Replacing one character for another that meets the same criteria to maintain the premise of the show and one mystery with another that requires both characters work together, just like Frank and Kyle. What do you think? Could that work?