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Joseph Mallozzi's Production Diary

Chapter 4: The Script
A blow by blow breakdown of the production process from concept to finished episode

My wife hates going to see movies with me, and I don’t blame her.  It can be a downright annoying experience.  I’ll fidget and squirm in my seat like a worm on a hook, occasionally sighing, occasionally muttering sarcastic comments to myself, ultimately rising as the end credits roll to deliver my trademark “That was garbage!” review.  I’d like to say this irksome conduct is the exception to the rule, reserved for the mere handful of truly atrocious films I’ve seen over the years, but the sad truth is I’ve had occasion to squirm, sigh, and/or mutter sarcastically to myself more often than not over the course of my film-viewing experiences.  I can’t help it.  Like a fellow magician who sits in the audience, less-than-impressed with the stage show because he is privy to the headliner’s tricks, I find it very difficult to just sit back and enjoy a movie anymore.  Truth be told, the only consistent pleasure I derive from the movie-going experience comes from bitterly complaining about it.  That, and chocolate-covered almonds.

So, okay – no script is perfect.  Nevertheless, I would like to think that the scriptwriter puts forth his or her best effort on each and every script.  Of course, it’s easy to blame the writer for a crummy movie but the truth is (and, believe me, I know from experience) the writer is not always to blame.  Often, yes, but not always.  A movie, just like any television show, is a group effort – everyone from the lowliest extra to the most powerful producer can have a hand in creating a terrific final product - or ruining a perfectly good idea.

So you’re sitting in the theater, thinking to yourself “What a lame movie!  Who is to blame?”  Who indeed.  The first thought would be the writer and, chances are, he or she is to blame.  But there’s also the possibility that someone did an uncredited rewrite of the original script, making a mess of things.  Or, there’s the possibility that the writer is rewriting someone else’s disastrous first draft (as a former colleague was fond of saying: “Sh*t don’t take a good buff.”).  Or, the writer has been hired to write a script based on a “brilliant” idea by the executive producer’s mother-in-law and, granted, the third act twist may not make sense but she absolutely positively wants to keep the scene where the murderer turns out to be the talking dog.  Or the actor decides to adlib a line, not considering that, in so doing, he/she has completely invalidated the previous scene.  Or the director decides to make changes to the script on the day in order to better suit their vision, dismissing objections that, now, the character motivation no longer makes sense.  Or the producer does such a hatchet job in the editing room that the narrative is all over the place.  Or…I could go on.  There are so many cooks on hand to spoil the broth that, unless you’re intimately familiar with a production, it’s impossible to assign specific blame.  Well, almost impossible because, let’s face it, 9 out of 10 times the scriptwriter is the one to take the fall.  That’s show business.

Hang on a minute.  How, you may be wondering, does all this apply to Stargate?  Well, I’m pleased to say the Stargate cast and crew are extremely talented and, as a result, our viewers never ever have cause for complaint.

As I’m sure you’ll all agree.

Secure in the knowledge that we have the best cast and crew in television watching our back, Paul and I get to work on “Revisions”.  The actual scriptwriting begins!

When it comes to writing a script, everyone in the department has their own style.  Robert sits at his desk, staring at his computer screen for extended periods of time, typing in dialogue when it comes to him, fielding telephone calls and queries every so often, never really breaking his train of thought.  Peter DeLuise simply locks his office door, draws the blinds, and gets to work.  Damian tries to follow Peter’s lead, closing the door to avoid distraction but, inevitably, finds his way out and into our offices (or over to the girls in accounting) where he’ll chat and sip coffee until he realizes he isn’t getting any work done – then pack up and go write at home.  Paul and I – well, we usually work in Paul’s office.  Paul sets up the laptop.  I stroll in with my snack.  And we begin.

Since the outline was fairly detailed, things go swimmingly.  At first.  We do a little research on the possible chemical composition of the toxic atmosphere on the planet, suggesting that it is the result of rapid industrial growth.  SG-1 investigates a peculiar MALP transmission and discovers a society living within a hermetically sealed environment.  After introducing themselves to the populace, they contact Hammond and inform him that they will be spending the night.  Hammond gives the okay and SG-1 settles down for the evening – O’Neill and Teal’c bunking with a kindly gardener (Kendrick) and his ever-curious son (Nevin), while Carter and Daniel stay with a young couple (Pallan and Evanna).  Lights out.  Night.  The town is eerily quiet.  Then, the quaint stillness is broken by…a curiously unsettling development to end the first act.

Paul sits at this desk, typing it all into his laptop.  I sit beside his desk, feet up, snacking on nuts, cereal, dried cranberries, and cashew butter.  We run the dialogue between us, throwing out variations on lines, different attacks on the respective scenes.  Paul is extremely particular about the scene’s rhythm, wracking his brain (and forcing me to wrack mine) for just the right run.   This is how we write.  On occasion, Paul may come in early (his cat has a habit of waking him up at 5:00ish) to get a head start.  When I come in, I’ll go over what he wrote and then we move forward.  If we’re pressed for time, we may write at home, emailing the script back and forth, until we have it done.

It takes us about two weeks to write a script.  Revisions is about par for the course.  We build our production schedule with regard to actor and location availability.  We have to make judicious use of Richard Dean Anderson’s availability.  Our location manager, Lynn Smith, meanwhile, is way ahead of the game – already scouting locations as we write.  We are going to need a town setting, some interiors (these can either be found on location or are built on set), and a garden.  If we’re going out on location, we have to ensure it is worthwhile.  In other words, there is no point in going to a park for a one page scene as it would cost more time getting there and setting up than actually shooting the scene.  Either we make the location worthwhile (get a day’s work out of it) or, as often happens, we marry it to another location, choosing two locations in close proximity to one another thereby cutting down on the time and expense of a second move.  For instance, in Smoke and Mirrors, we married the military hospital where Kinsey was being treated with the park where Carter meets Barrett.

We keep this in mind when we outline the story and as we write the script.  Weeks later, while writing Avenger 2.0, we write a scene in which Carter drops in on Jay Felger.  A flustered Felger answers the door and, just as he invites Carter inside, we hear an elderly woman’s voice call: “Jay!  There’s someone at the door!”  Mortified, he yells back: “I got it, ma!” and ushers Carter into the kitchen.  It’s a funny bit - that, unfortunately, gets cut when we realize we don’t have a house.  Instead, production considerations dictate we change the house setting to a motel so that we can marry it to a park scene later in the script.  Sadly, 30-something scientist Jay Felger no longer lives with his mother.

So on we go, typing, pacing, running dialogue, snacking on cashew butter until the time comes – at least once over the course of writing a script – when Paul will suddenly say: “I just realized something”.  When Paul says “I just realized something”, it essentially means “I’ve just realized that the script we’re writing doesn’t make sense because there is a small, seemingly insignificant plot point that we overlooked that, upon closer scrutiny, will cause the entire story to unravel.”  Way back when we were writing Window of Opportunity, it was the realization that “Hey, why don’t we just dial out, establishing an outgoing wormhole thereby not allowing the other planet to dial us and initiate the loop?”  After much discussion, we decide that the other planet would not allow us to establish an outgoing wormhole – and this actually becomes a scene in the script.  In most cases, we are able to talk it through in the room and come up with a change that will solve the problem.  Other times, we’ll run the problem by Robert, the master spinner, who, true to his nickname, can talk/explain his way out of anything.  In the case of the Revisions “bump”, its simply a matter of laying down proper parameters for how the “computer reboots the system”.  Computer?  Reboot?  What the heck am I talking about?  You’ll have to tune in to find out the answer to that one.

Once we finish our first draft of the script, it goes to Cath-Anne Ambrose, our resident script diva, who puts it out to the writing department (Robert, Peter, Damian, Paul, and myself).  Everyone reads the script, then convenes in Robert’s office for the roasting.  We start with the cover notes, the bigger concerns that need to be tracked through the script, then move on to the smaller page notes.  As a writer, you should have enough confidence in your writing to defend your script if you disagree with the criticism, but enough common sense to recognize when someone has a point.  Simply put, you have to pick your spots: know when to fight and when to acquiesce.  We all know and respect one another’s opinions, so the mood is fairly upbeat and, given the fact everyone has already read the outline, its rare that we ever “tear a script apart like a pack of wild dingos”.  But it does happen.  I recall one particularly memorable session in which a writer was looking at a fairly extensive rewrite.  We’d been at it for over an hour, dissecting the draft.  In need of a coffee, the shell-shocked writer set his script aside – at which point one of the office dogs jumped up onto the couch, lifted his leg, and peed on the script.  Flustered, the writer jumped up and yelled: “The dog just pi**ed on my script!” to which Brad dryly countered: “I guess he didn’t want to feel left out.”

Once we get our notes, we head back to the office and put out our second draft.  This becomes what we like to refer to as the “Writer’s Draft”.  It goes out to the department heads, the studio, the broadcaster, casting, and, last but not least, leaked to the online spoiler sites.

But that’s not the end of it.  Eventually, the script will become a “Final Draft”.  But “final” is a misnomer because there’s nothing really “final” about it.  The script will go through many more revisions as we head through the week of prep before the episode is shot (and will often continue to be revised through production itself).  With each revision, a new version of the script is released, the revised sections clearly indicated by a precise color-coded system.  Changes to the white draft result in blue pages which, if changed, result in pink pages – followed by yellow, green, goldenrod, salmon, cherry, buff, tan, and, finally, back to white.  That’s the color-coded system in our scriptwriting software but, to be honest, “salmon” sounds suspiciously like “pink”, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “cherry” draft, and I haven’t a clue what “buff” is.  I recall Brad telling us how he once received a multi-colored spec script from a neophyte writer who had seen a production draft and simply assumed that this was what a professional script looked like.

I’m getting ahead of myself.  Somewhere between the writer’s white draft and the pre-production meeting blue pages are the seven days during which the director and the other department heads try to figure out what the hell you wrote and how they can possibly turn it into a t.v. show.

Joseph Mallozzi is a Writer and Executive Producer for Stargate SG-1

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