A review of Brett Martin’s Difficult Men

[The New Republic]

Today, on The New Republic‘s website, I’ve got a review of Brett Martin’s very good (and very subtitled) new book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

The review’s also an argument that we — TV fans, TV critics, and the journalists who write about TV — need to stop fetishizing showrunners and to start focusing on how TV actually gets made. That process, I note in my review, is “less celebrity chef than crockpot.” Yet most TV coverage continues to trot out anecdotes about the heroic showrunner, standing up the clueless executive. I figured one way to counter this is through a few anecdotes of my own — some from Difficult Men; some from Alan Sepinwall’s recent book, which makes a solid chaser to Martin’s; and some from my own research.

Taken together, these anecdotes remind us that, in many cases, the best things about the best shows can result not from genius showrunners but from a blend of contingency, collaboration, and dumb luck.

  • On Deadwood, showrunner David Milch entrusted the pilot to Walter Hill, a noted director of Westerns. Hill pushed for a rewrite of the pilot’s opening scene — from an original take, which focused on an angry mob outside a jail, to a new one centering on the interactions inside the jail. Milch agreed to reshoot the opening, and to my mind the new one’s the best start to a show in TV history.
  • Also on Deadwood, William Sanderson, the actor who played E. B. Farnum, was terrified of long monologues. So showrunner David Milch decided to write Sanderson speech after speech, with the result being the jittery masterpiece that is Farnum’s character. Do you credit that result to Milch or to Sanderson or (and here’s my vote) to both?
  • On Mad Men, Don hurries home at the end of season one to join Betty for a Thanksgiving trip to her parents’ home. In Matt Weiner’s original script, Don arrives just in time to accompany his family. But AMC exec Christina Wayne pushed him to reconsider: “It’s cable. Nobody should be happy.” Wayne says Weiner started “screaming and yelling” at her, but later that night called back and agreed to turn the scene into a dreamy but depressing fakeout. “I just wanted my characters to be happy,” Weiner told Wayne. “I love them so much.”
  • On Breaking Bad, Wayne made a similar stand. Here’s how showrunner Vince Gilligan remembers it: “[Wayne] said I used too much music in my first cut of the pilot episode — I had just brought my iPod into the editing room. This executive said, ‘Don’t you trust your material? Do you think you need music to sell it?’ I got so bent out of shape that I wrote an e-mail to her boss, which I really regret, trying to get her in trouble with him. But in hindsight, she was in the right, and if you watch Breaking Bad now, there’s more silence than music.”
  • On Breaking Bad — and the collaborations on this show could fill an entire post, in part because Gilligan is such a gracious interview — a director created the uncanny season-four shot of Walt howling in his crawlspace. Here’s Gilligan again: “We had a wonderful director, a guy named Scott Winant, for whom this was his second Breaking Bad episode as director. . . . It was his idea to end with that shot, all credit goes to him. . . . When Scott pitched that idea to our director of photography, Michael Slovis, Michael got to working with our grip department and they created this mechanism that was built out of a bunch of speed rail and mounted the camera so it was pointed straight down at the ground. And then this contraption was raised up into the rafters of the soundstage ceiling with a series of electric winches.”
  • On Breaking Bad . . . those electric winches saved money, which was always a concern on set, but they also made the shot sway back and forth — and that accidental effect is arguably the best part of the scene. Now consider the show’s amazing use of its New Mexico setting — it was supposed to be set in southern California, but New Mexico offered better tax incentives. Or consider Mike the Fixer, whom the writers created because of a scheduling conflict with the actor who played the show’s sleazy lawyer. It was supposed to be a single-episode affair, but Jonathan Banks’s stony professionalism convinced them to keep Mike around until he became one of the show’s most beloved characters. In these and many, many other instances, the show took shape through a series of small but accretive choices. And those choices (and all the people who make them) are what we should be excited about when it comes to TV.
  • On Six Feet Under (and it seems right to end with another example of an executive doing good), Carolyn Strauss of HBO came up with the original concept. In 1999, after Alan Ball’s script for American Beauty had earned him lots of attention, Strauss called Ball in for a meeting and told him that she’d been mulling a “dark” show about a “family funeral home.” Ball read some Jessica Mitford and fleshed out the concept. He drew on his own biography, too, for the show’s southern twist. But it wasn’t the showrunner who came up with the original idea — it was Strauss.

Novelists and cable television

[The New York Times]

In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, I’ve got an essay about how more and more novelists are selling the rights to their work to cable networks — and in many cases, even helping adapt that work, as well. Since many of the projects I mentioned remain in the pilot stage (and since the odds that a pilot makes it to air remain terrible), it was tough to get interviews. But I did talk at length with Jonathan Ames, a novelist who’s already adapted his work into a show, Bored to Death, that just finished its third season. Ames made for a great interview — a metaphor machine who balanced deep knowledge with deep-ish pessimism. Below are some interesting quotations I couldn’t fit into the essay.”

On a TV show’s financial benefits: “I got paid much more for the show’s pilot script, which took me six days to write, than I’d ever gotten for any of my novels. The economy of scale is just absurd.”

On a TV show’s collaboration: “HBO was very kind to me — they gave me a learner’s permit. . . . I don’t have much time to sit on a script before I turn it over to other people. It’s a very vulnerable moment. It forces you to be imperfect in front of other people. I need all these people to be, in a sense, editors. Sometimes it’s difficult. But most of the time everyone makes it better.”

On the value of TV versus literature: “In all the media, my goal is to entertain and amuse — to, for a moment, give someone some relief, perhaps, and to make someone feel less alone. . . . There are certain things I smuggle into the show,  things that you might not find in a typical comedy. I want there to be some gravitas, some sorrow and despair — for a moment, it’s not clearly just a joke, and that feels more in the realm of what I can do in my novels and my nonfiction. But prose makes it much easier to toggle back and forth from lightness and darkness.”

On returning to writing: “Over the course of writing the show, I’ve written a handful of essays. I’ve kept my hand in prose. But I’d like to return to books, if I’m lucky enough to be able to. I can imagine a future critic saying, ‘Ames has clearly been writing for TV.'”

Mark Twain’s Many Mansions

[New York Press]

In this week’s New York Press, I’ve got a story about Mark Twain’s long-forgotten residence in Greenwich Village—and the 1954 crusade to save it. I first discovered this while doing some research (on one of these) for grad school stuff, and I quickly became obsessed with it. As you’ll see in my Press story, though, things got really interesting when I tracked down one of the story’s main players—a British film director who happens to be celebrating his 99th birthday this week. (This week also happens to be the centenary of Twain’s death; they just missed each other.)

Anyway, the story’s obviously a New York-centric one, so, in deference to all the non-New Yorkers out there, I thought I’d share some photos I took while reporting this. Up top is the plaque—still there at the corner of Fifth and Ninth in Manhattan—that the Greenwich Village Historical Society set up in 1925. (Clara, Twain’s daughter who put up the “NO BILLIARDS AFTER 10 P.M.” sign, was at the ceremony.)

Here’s another 1840s townhouse a few blocks over from the site of the Twain House. (The Twain House, thanks to its architect, included more flourishes than this house: stained glass windows, Romanized details, and a whole lot of wrought iron.)

Here’s the faux-historical sign the developers slapped on the “tall ultramodern apartment building.”

And here’s Twain at 21 Fifth Avenue, chalking his cue. There are a ton of great photos like this in Paine’s three-volume biography, which is available on Google Books. Here’s the third volume, in which, at several points, Paine signals that Twain was a bit of a cheater.

Speaking in Dialects

[x-posted at The Rumpus]

Tim Monich has five times as many IMDB credits as Jason Schwartzman, but we know for whom Brooklyn tolls. This week’s New Yorker profile of Monich won’t change that, of course, but it does offer a riveting look at the world of Hollywood dialect coaches.

Movie accents are one of those things we don’t notice until they go bad, but, as Alec Wilkinson reports, Monich has worked with tons of stars, including Hilary Swank in Amelia and Matt Damon in Invictus. Whatever the role, Monich can rely on his incredible archive of sound recordings—more than six thousand of them, all filed in boxes bearing names like “USA A-H” (American dialects, Alabama to Hawaii).

The world of elite dialect coaching, as you might guess, is a small one; Monich received his start from a student-of-a-student-of-a-student of the man who provided the inspiration for Henry Higgins. (The New Yorker identifies Higgins as the Pygmalion character, but here, at The Rumpus, we’re on fine terms with My Fair Lady.) Thankfully, Wilkinson walks us through the entire process, showing how, under Monich’s aegis, Brad Pitt perfected the speeches memorialized this summer in the Inglourious Basterds trailer. Sooooun gud?

It’s all accessible––Wilkinson spares us any IPA or epiglottal consonants––and it’s all fascinating. Where else will you hear Gerard Butler compare Speak with Distinction to Ulysses? In fact, the whole thing recalls Rebecca Mead’s great 2003 profile of Jaime Pressly, “The Almost-It Girl.” (Like the Monich piece, it sits behind a subscription wall; what’s with The New Yorker burying its best Hollywood-from-the-margins stories?)

But there’s one key difference between Wilkinson’s profile and just about any other piece of Hollywood journalism, and I think it imbues the profile with much of its oomph. In no other story quoting so many celebrities—and Pitt/Damon/Swank are only the start—do they all talk about one relatively average guy. It becomes a weird, inverted world where Leo and Liam rub elbows with Monich and the regular folks he interviewed while building his archive. For a moment, or maybe just for an unruly vowel, the actor-viewer relationship reverses.

John Cusack and DFW

[x-posted at The Rumpus]

On Friday night, and in preparation for Where the Wild Things Are, I rewatched Spike Jonze’s first feature, Being John Malkovich. What struck me was not the film’s final childlike shots or how its puppet shows anticipate both Christopher Walken and those expensive, “absurdly heavy” monster suits, but something else—namely how goddamn much John Cusack looked like David Foster Wallace.

In the film, Cusack plays a character named Craig Schwartz, and, to me, at least, he bears an uncanny resemblance to DFW circa Charlie Rose. I can’t find a good image of Cusack-as-Schwartz online, but you’ll have to trust me. Both men sport the same long, thick, unmanaged hair; the same weak, stubbly jaw; the same tight white shirt and skinny red tie; the same unhip round glasses; and even some of the same facial tics (especially once Cusack discovers “the portal”).

Wallace recently got his own film treatment—for the titular sections of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, adapted and directed by Office-ite John Krasinski—and, thanks to it, we can connect these dots. Krasinski to Dave Eggers (Away We Go), Eggers to Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are), Jonze to Cusack—no Kevin Bacon needed![1] But I’m starting to sound far more glib than I felt after finishing Being John Malkovich. In fact, for me, the Wallace/Cusack effect quickly went from oddly creepy to kind of sad. But then I decided to rewatch that Rose interview, where guest and host meander through A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Strangely, the real dead person cheered me up where the silly doppelganger got me down. And I think that’s because the lo-fi Wallace interview stands as a better piece of visual entertainment than Being John Malkovich or Where the Wild Things Are or just about anything else—and that’s because of what Wallace says.

Watch that interview. Read the collection’s essay on television and contemporary fiction. Cipher on the ghostly parallel to Cusack (the trailer’s here). Just remember that DFW’s body of work lives on, and that it’s a little less bitter on each return.


[1] Being John Malkovich‘s original script did call for Bacon to play one of Malkovich’s friends.