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VIFF INDUSTRY: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY’s Nicole Perlman, BONES/BACKSTROM’s Hart Hanson; CONTINUUM’s Simon Barry, & MOTIVE’s Dennis Heaton on 2014 Genre Writers Panel

VIFF Industry Conference: Genre Smash! sponsored by ACFC West, Local 2020 Unifor from VIFF on Vimeo.

One Marvel screenwriter. Three Homegrown Showrunners. Panel moderated by one of the snarkiest TV critics ever, Tim Goodman. Equals VIFF Industry’s Can’t-Miss Panel of 2014.
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Tim Goodman, Dennis Heaton, Nicole Perlman, Simon Barry and Hart Hanson.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Genre: Space Opera.

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Nicole Perlman is the screenwriter whose draft for 2014′s biggest box office smash Guardians of the Galaxy convinced Marvel to greenlight the movie. Reportedly director James Gunn refuses to acknowledge her contribution, taking full credit for the script-to-screen process — especially the comedic elements — but the Writers Guild of America sees it differently, giving Perlman a co-writing credit and nominating her and Gunn for best adapted screenplay. While she is not invited back for the sequel, her role in launching a new Marvel movie franchise is an important first for female screenwriters.

Nicole Perlman:.in terms of Guardians of the Galaxy…knew comics had this tone already…irreverent, sarcastic and fun…knew that was what made this series special…about finding the heart there …knew not an origin story...there’s been a million space operas…what makes this space opera interesting? . . .did so many versions of this story…worked on it for well over 2 years…fulltime… had luxury of following permutations..at the very beginning…two handers following sort of the Star Wars paradigm..follow Star Wars…traditional hero then quirky guy…Luke Skywalker/Hans Solo…[Peter] Quill is so much more fun…we can get more into the story through Quill without having another lead sapping that away from him…Nova originally a part of that team…Quill can just be the bad boy…the thing that made me love this project…those of us who are lucky to be born into a great family have an advantage…but so many people have experience of finding people who will be their family for the rest of their lives as adults…you can choose your family…family metaphor…giving [the Guardians] something to be heroic for.

Re constrictions and constraints making it better: with science fiction and fantasy, people who aren’t fans of the genre says we don’t like it because you can wave your magic wand…fix something…take a magic feather…whatever…bad science fiction or bad fantasy does that…but it’s actually the opposite…you have to establish the rules of the world really clearly and really specifically…this is what can happen and why…this is what can’t happen and why…have to be be loyal to that…it’s good to have constraints to push against…helps you figure out ways to be creative…might have been lazy otherwise…there’s a trust that’s established between the filmmakers and the creators of a show and the audience…here are the rules….we’re not going to break them…if you break them I know myself as an audience member I immediately turn off . . I tune out…Oh, I can’t trust you ….you’re not going to play by your own rules...with film it’s a lot easier because you have your beginning, middle and end.

Re not relying on sci fi elements: Guardians themselves have a lot more powers in the comics…advanced healing…most of them have regeneration… super strength…obviously Drax very strong…looks very strong…there was a sense of wanting it to be harder for them …one of things that I was drawn to…aren’t really super heroes…only one of their species…they were genetically modified…as much as I love super hero movies I wanted it to be less about that and more about the group themselves…makes them more relatable…less about their origin stories as individuals ….Rocket…I love Rocket…Rocket’s one of my favourite characters…hestitation…we were afraid he would be Jar Jar Binks…that was the fear that he would too cartoony…wouldn’t be taken seriously…there was a lot of hesitation about Rocket including me …first few drafts didn’t have Rocket….Rocket’s such a great character..how can you not have Rocket?…I love Rocket…little bit of tug and war in Marvel over Rocket…once he was in the draft he was always in the draft..

That was one of the reasons I took the job with Marvel…they brought me and five other people in…experiment…we each got to choose a property from their vault…C level properties…each of us developed the hell out of the property by ourselves.… Faustian deal …couldn’t work for anybody else while you were doing that…very strange situation that Marvel set up….took that job because I wanted to transition…have that pedigree ….hard to go from movies in the $10 million range to gigantic tent pole kind of thing.. unfortunately women are a novelty in that genre right now.

BONES/BACKSTROM

Genre: Procedural With Humour.

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Early in 2014, homegrown writer-showrunner Hart Hanson returned to his grad school alma mater the University of British Columbia to give a sold-out talk called “From Here to There: A Nice Canadian Boy Goes to Hollywood”. Best-known for his long-running Los Angeles-shot series Bones on FOX,  Hanson is back in Vancouver shooting the 13-episode ”crime-dy” Backstrom, starring The Office’s Rainn Wilson as Portland Detective Everett Backstrom. Self-Destructive. Judgemental. Indulgent. And the way he solves crimes is almost criminal. Backstrom tries and fails to change his boorish behaviour while leading the Serious Crimes Unit, investigating Portland’s most sensitive crimes. The part-procedural part-comedy filmed in Vancouver until mid-November and is set to premiere January 22nd on FOX.

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Hart Hanson – when Bones first came out everyone said this is a new thing..a procedural with humour...I’d love to take credit for that but the shows I watched growing up as a kid were all procedurals with humour in them…like Moonlighting…I based Bones mostly on two literary characters in Patrick White’s series of sailing, Napoleonic war novels [Master and Commander]…a rationalist and an emotionalist….network is its own genre…talk about constraints…the constraints of network..then you’ve got whatever genre you’re working in…at the time Bones started, CSI was king of the hill, I was hired to do FOX’s CSI ….I wasn’t going to do CSI….nothing against it…wasn’t interested…I’ve been talking to cops for 10 years on Bones…they all say the same thing to me…forensics never solves a crime ever…it’s how you persuade a jury that the bad guy did it…but that’s not how you catch the bad guy…Backstrom…oh I’ll do the opposite of Bones…do a show that is based on human nature…solved by a guy who has a horrible horrible human nature….find a little place to place yourself…hope you find an audience which is getting very very difficult ….Gotham took off well….Shonda Rhimes…she’s an absolute genius…she’s figured out…do a soap opera…don’t mean in any to denigrate what she does …she’s brilliant at it….good solid human interaction…almost people don’t care about the plot…you’re just dancing for genre…usually for us there’s a show somewhere in the middle of the season where the script is a piece of shit…now you’re buffing a turd…to hide from America that it’s a turd so you throw money at it….it becomes the one that you …lose a bunch a budget so that it’s as good as the other episodes…and then after that you have to find a way to save the money and write really well  …which is harder to do in the middle of the season than blow up the Pentagon or something.

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Real life keeps ruining things…the fact that people can be in constant touch with each other…easier to write a western…you could cut the telegraph lines and you were done…the fact can find people using GPS..cell phones…social media…makes it harder for us to come up with crime stories….I wonder how real criminals get away with anything.

We have incredible researchers…trying really hard to stay in real world…frustrating to find out how easy it is for law enforcement…in real life…fingerprints not very good…chances are you go in with bare hands, stab somebody and touch everything in the house they’re not going to get a good print.

Re creating a new show: an American network show you’re in a certain strait jacket..how….there’s a huge difference in culture between CBS, ABC, NBC and FOX…try and create a FOX show…Backstrom created first for CBS….now it is a FOX show…it changed radically…then you’ve got to get in there with the FOX execs and get your elbows up to protect…..Bones on its fifth network head……everybody is smart…[but] if you listen to everybody you will get pudding…even if everybody’s a wonderful genius…we’ve all seen it…very accomodating creators, showrunners….take all the notes…end up with a pudding….dog’s breakfast.

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Backstrom: character is misanthropic…he hates humanity…he hates himself and he hates humanity…says things that are sexist….racist…ageist….but he’s none of those things…not a racist…he hates humanity…not a misogynist…he hates humanity..difference between FOX and CBS….you can say tranny as long as it means a transvestite and not a transsexual….CBS procedurals come with a cast iron set of rules…they know what they’re doing..FOX hasn’t got any of those except for Bones…it’s just a different culture…the female lead changed….at CBS they didn’t care that Backstrom was lazy and didn’t want to solve the crimes…he just wanted to sleep in the surveillance van….FOX was keen that he be energized to solve crimes…middle ground…he can be energized and activated to solve the crimes but it has to be for a terrible reason..has to be ignoble….enervating process….to constantly find and defend [your wall]…I wouldn’t want to be running a network right now it’s very confusing….except for CBS…speak with one voice….with FOX there’s a horrible uncertainty….unironic admiration for CBS…. like watching facist country that kind of works …like a kingdom….benevolent kingdom like Ned Stark ran before he was killed.

CONTINUUM

Genre: Sci-fi procedural.

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Homegrown writer-showrunner Simon Davis Barry, a UBC Film grad, created Vancouver-cop-from-the-future series Continuum while stuck in traffic and envisioning a future without cars. His future is a dystopian one where rising seas from global climate change wipe out the east coast making Vancouver a world financial centre where corporations have taken over failed governments. A corporate officer from the future Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) travels back in time to present-day, chasing a group of terrorists who plan to change the future from the past by targeting the corporations that will come to the rule the world. Always the good soldier in the future, Kiera slowly adjusts “her moral compass” in the third season. Perhaps her future is not such a great future after all and not worth protecting. Continuum started out as part-procedural, part sci-fi but is more serialized now. The fourth and final season starts filming in Vancouver this Spring and will air later in the year on Showcase in Canada and Syfy in the United States.

Simon Barry: Continuum..flash back and forward…it’s time travel…mechanics of what works and what doesn’t…really hard to keep them all in balance…mess up something logically…people at home pretty savvy.

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We go to work every day and think genre slowdance…how do we get all the good stuff of sci fi, time travel tropes and still blend it in a way that doesn’t feel like that’s driving the process… how do we keep satisfying the fans of the genre but tell stories that feel like they’re grounded and have themes that are relevant and characterizations that are identifiable…every time we break stories….it’s this balance…are we letting the goofiness of time travel …giving us an excuse not to tell a better story…is the gadgetry a crutch…how that enhances straight up drama instead of thinking we have to be killing it every week with the fanboys, with mythology or something that’s just out of this world…it’s a good box to be in from the point of view of writers…whenever you put writers in a situation that they have to write themselves out of …and you give them constraints…I like constraints a lot…those constraints create much better scenes…you really feel like you have to solve a problem..approach it like an engineer almost…how do we solve this…we build a collapsing house…build the bigger arc….then make sure everyone realizes these are the genga pieces… if you pull them out the thing falls down…so how do we get around them and still tell those stories.

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Every season…usually in the middle of the order ….episode that gets less money…by mid-season you have an idea how you’ve overspent….start adjusting…so you don’t run out of money by the end…usually a special episode….called the Bottle show…those episodes end up being the best ones..because you don’t have anything to fall back on….have to dig down..end up going into your characters stories..what’s the twist that we can’t pay for…has to be something mythologically interesting and connected but it can’t be an explosion…can’t be a visual effect…can’t be a time travel component…gotta be something else…I like those stories a lot.

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We have different set of problems when we pitch to the broadcaster where we’re heading…we are much tougher on ourselves than the network ever is…we’re thrown out scripts…took A story and flipped it with B story in the editing room and didn’t tell the network until they saw it…big transgression…but because it was better I felt like we had a shot at winning them over…..when you do make big turns in the show they get noticed…coming out of season 2…we had one of our lead characters go back in time..that was the big season climax…young character Alec who is in love, his girlfriend has died…realizes he can go subvert  Kiera’s opportunity.. for himself  to save his girlfriend…so he does that..and he set in motion this awful domino effect that we are still living with….seemed really cool at the time..so we have to go to the network and say to solidify that in the realm of our time travel rules and but also dramatically..he’s going to have to run into himself….there’ll be two of him..we can’t really leave our lead character back in that  timeline…find a way for her to go as well….which means she’s going to run into herself…can’t have two of them running around.. we’re going to kill her in first episode of season and pitch that to a network…here’s one of the great things about science fiction….they don’t know this as well as I do…where in law show, cop show hospital show…scared of science fiction …unless you’re a real nerd…when you encounter executives…don’t want to have the argument.. they know they’re going to lose….like those math puzzles on Big Bang Theory…in the writers room we have all these formulas…cost of that we better do our homework because if we blow it up….have to police ourselves….that’s the tradeoff of having that freedom…sci fi is unique in that sense…hard to have a logical argument when you’re talking about made-up rules….that helps me….other elements they do think they’re experts in.

MOTIVE

Genre: Procedural With a Twist.

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Homegrown Dennis Heaton, a former Simon Fraser University film student, is co-showrunner of Vancouver whydunit series Motive, starring Kristin Lehman and Louis Ferreira. The Murder is Just the Beginning on Motive. The hit procedural-with-a-twist on CTV in Canada and ABC in the U.S. is unusual for two reasons: Vancouver plays itself not somewhere else and Motive is a whydunit not a whodunit. At the top of each episode, we learn who The Killer and The Victim (often BC actors) are and then follow along with detectives Angie Flynn (Lehman) and Oscar Vega (Ferreira) as they solve the murder and uncover the reasons behind it. Production of the third season got underway in Vancouver in mid-September.

Dennis Heaton: I inherited Motive from Daniel Cerone…project he developed…Daniel wanted to create a whydunit…in the pilot script….he writes that opening….we introduce who the killer and victim will be right at the beginning of the show….and that screws us..save that for the end…the smart place to put it…that actor’s not available….the sister did it…we take 90% of what you would do for a mystery…by default we end up having to rethink how we structure an episode….show itself a bit of a smashup too…traditional procedural with Angie and Vega and the rest of the investigative team……but then we do a really big killer story…procedural and anthology series and doing them both at same time..format itself dictates that we have to do things differently…don’t want your detectives looking like idiots for 42 of the 43 minutes...have to jump over certain investigative paths you would generally do in a procedural…much different story structure…the why is the big question on show…why does the killer want to kill this person…red herring….maybe he killed her because she slept with his brother and broke his heart…or maybe this …or maybe that…see you next week.

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Our police liaison tells us y0u can drive from one end of the city to the other and always be on video…Vancouver Police department has perfected the method of video analysis…like the riot event…getting all the video footage together…they’ve done it ….where they’ve tracked criminals from the airport to North Vancouver.

Really easy to self-censure in the room..I try not to do it…this season we’ve had a really good track record with getting our stories approved..as long as we’re really feeling entertained by the idea….they’re signing off on it.

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interest in genre? – threatening in season 4 that Vega becomes a vampire….very little fantasy genre that I’ve written…that’s what I want to be writing…between seasons I try to develop at least one project for myself…shelve it for a later meeting for when I’m pitching and  blowing chunks… I say OK I’ve got Ghost Car….it’s Crown Vic where a homicide detective got shot it…and he’s a ghost in the car and somebody buys it at auction…and they drive around together and solve mysteries.

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