The Smokin' Pen Goes To Washington - Gillain & Donna's Script To Screen (1/10)

13 views
Skip to first unread message

Paul Edmonds

unread,
Jun 2, 2000, 3:00:00 AM6/2/00
to
And here we go.....

Gillian and Donna opened the first session of the Convention and sat behind
their table, placing name cards in front of themselves. They said that
those of us who put reports on the Web would get them the wrong way round -
I hope I've got them the right way round - Donna was the one that wearing
glasses and Gillian was the one the auditioning for the principal boy in
pantomime with a truly amazing set of thigh-length boots!

They said that the process of writing Highlander was similar, but not
identical to other TV shows. This was because it was the first show shot in
the way it was. Gillian said that they would often be asked at parties, "So
when does that show start?" Now, of course, everyone has seen the show in
syndication. It never used to be listed in the trade papers, but now it is
mentioned as being inspirational or that another show is an "imitation" of
it.

Whilst it may seem that the writers make it up as they go along, the process
of writing a television show begins six months before filming starts. Work
will start on the scripts in April, with the hope that six scripts will be
written by September. Filming of each episode takes between six to eight
days, with an extra day in France. Donna joked that they made this back by
the fact that they did not have to build cathedrals for episodes filmed near
Paris. They considered that they would be lucky to get the other seven
episodes to be filmed in Vancouver written in time. They had time to catch
up with themselves in the few weeks' break when the production was moved
from Vancouver to Paris.

It is a misconception to believe that an episode is written by a single
writer. As Gillian put it, if you want to be a single writer -go write a
book! Television is a collaborative medium-they said that all the good
things on Highlander had come out of collaboration, although it can degrade
a good idea slightly. At this point, Donna decided to tease Gillian gently
by calling her "Professor Horvath" and telling us that Gillian was teaching
at UCLA on writing Episodic Television. Gillian quoted Steve Barnes, who
had written for Baywatch, but who was also a collaborator with Larry Niven,
who, when asked about how he viewed the collaborative process, said "it's
just think". They said that if you approach the collaborative process with
a negative attitude, what you see on screen will feel ruined, but that too
many times, they had seen an idea from an actor or someone connected with
the show that worked better than whatever they had written. They quoted Ken
Gord's decision to use a submarine base instead of a chateau - to which
their reaction had been "yuck"! Gillian leant into the microphone and gave
us lesson #1 - Ken Gord is God. They said that Ken Gord would often come to
them with ideas for them to use, such as "well, there's this abandoned theme
park....." They were referring, of course, to Epitaph For Tommy, about
which Donna said that the Quickening was the best part of the episode. In
film, you can go find the location you need, but in television, you have to
use what you've got and if what the script requires is too expensive, you'll
get an abandoned warehouse! This was where freelance writers were at a
disadvantage, as they could not talk to the producers. For example, a
writer might want to recreate the Raj, but there are no elephants up here in
Vancouver.

So where does an episode start? It starts with the "Pitch". This is a
couple of paragraphs which gives a short description of what happens in the
story - "this is the episode where....." Pity the poor freelance writer who
has to take their pitch into a room full of people and try to sell them on
an episode which features a mad scientist with decapitating collars, (at
this, Gillian visibly winced). Being on the staff, they could walk into
David Abramowitz's office and say, "how about It's A Wonderful Life?" Once
the pitch had been accepted, they would work out the story as a team.
Gillian remembered walking into David's office and trying to sell him a
story about the Mochi, who were a real tribe and worshipped a god called The
Decapitator. David didn't like the idea, but Donna remembered that Gillian
eventually got them on the show, via the back door, when she came up with a
story line about a guy who thinks he's God, and, for the flashback.....

The next part of the writing process is the "Area". This is a page which
lays down the outline of the episode, starting with the teaser in some
detail. There must be enough action and mystery in the teaser to keep you
interested enough to wait for the titles to play. As an example, Gillian
quoted the Leader Of The Pack teaser, which talked about the man running and
hunted by the dogs. The area will give the teaser in some detail, with an
outline of the rest of the show. It must set out the motivation for
MacLeod. An idea for a story could come from anywhere - for example, Travis
Macdonald, who played Mark Roscza in The Darkness, told Ken Gord that he
wanted to come back. As an aside, Donna quoted a number of actors who had
expressed a desire to return - Anthony Stewart Head had asked her why he had
never been asked back when they met at a party in Los Angeles and didn't
seem to think that his starring role in Buffy The Vampire Slayer was a
reason. Roger Daltrey was another actor who had wished to return and had
offered to change his hairstyle so that he could come back as a different
character before he reappeared in Till Death. The idea that Travis
Macdonald had come up with, of Mac hunting Tessa's killer, was not enough
for a story in its own right. There had to be another storyline, one which
featured an evil immortal and, in this case, they gave him a gimmick - the
dogs.

They said that Leader Of The Pack was a good example of a story where the
plot and sub-plot were parallel rather than there being an A and B plot.
Other examples of this were Glory Days and Timeless, rather than, as Donna
put weedy, the racing sub-plot. Once it was decided that there was a good
enough idea Bill pursue, the area was run past Bill Panzer who acted as
quality control. They sent that it was easier to write once the series was
established, as Season 1 stories had to be approved not only by Bill Panzer,
but also by producers in a nine other countries. They said that this could
lead to some interesting cultural insights - of Avenging Angel, the French
said, "but he's only killing prostitutes". They did not necessarily view
this as evil, but thought that the storyline for the Horsemen episodes was
"pointlessly barbaric".

Once the area had been approved, the "Outline" was prepared. This consisted
of 10 to 12 pages, with at paragraph outlining each scene in the proposed
episode, (unless it was written by James Thorpe, who apparently would write
Gone With The Wind). At this stage, the outline would contain no dialogue
or business, it would just detail the things needed to progress the story
from A to B. The hard part was not to tell the story in Act 1 and the trick
was to find a conflict for Mac. It could be that the bad Immortal was a
friend of Joe's or to otherwise make it difficult for MacLeod. They said
they had a joke about the writers interrupting the story. They would often
start a fight at the end of Act 2, but then interrupt it, as in Band Of
Brothers or The Immortal Cimoli. They had a cartoon in the writers' office
showing the writers dressed as clowns racing along in a pick-up truck with
sirens on their heads. Gillian Horvath said that she had had a story
meeting for Queen of Swords with James Thorpe and he said that he missed
that pick-up truck, but Queen of Swords was set in 1870.

They said that having a flashback made it easier, as you could show the
history between characters rather than have it spoken by someone and it also
filled the time - if they had a flashback that took the whole of Act 3, you
know that they had a problem! Gillian said that the first Baywatch episode
she wrote had a flashback! They said that you should never think that the
outline is great, as this is the most difficult bit, referred to as
"breaking the story". Writing the script from an outline is not hard -
getting a good outline is. Once the outline was done, then they would show
it to Bill, whose reaction could never be predicted. Apparently, he read
the outline of Revelation 6:8 and then threw it in the garbage, walking out
with the comment that they'd talk on Monday! They said that all producers
have trouble articulating what the problem with an outline is - David
Abramowitz was brilliant at fixing what was needed with a script, which was
not necessarily what he was told. Some directors would sent notes to the
writers about changes to the script, asking them to put in some other
things. They commented that generally the directors never saw how stupid
some of the changes were, but that they knew that the audience would! They
said that being a writer requires quite a lot of ego stroking.

Once the outline had been completed, the first draft of the script was
prepared. They said that this was another area where the differences
between the freelance writers and the staff writers showed. They spoke of
the problems that the series had in that credited writers had to be French
or Canadian, although in later seasons any EU citizen could be a credited
writer. They told us that the French had wanted a sub-plot in Revelation
6:8 about Kronos trying to overthrow the European Union by attacking a
summit meeting, an idea which would resurface in Deadly Exposure, (and later
in the weekend as well). That idea had quietly been ignored, but then a
friend of Gillian and Donna's brought them the French tapes and played them
for them, simultaneously translating, and lo! - the attack on the summit was
back. They pointed out that, in television, the writer never has the last
word. You might think that it stayed with an actor, who did not have to say
a line he did not want, but you'd be wrong, as the last word should be with
the editor, or the producer, who can have dialogue looped in later. In this
case, the last word stayed with the translator. They pointed out that,
sometimes, the editor could add to a scene by using pieces of footage which
were not necessarily intended for broadcast - for example, they quoted a
scene from Chivalry, where Duncan is looking at Kristen. This was actually
a piece of film where the camera was on Adrian Paul as he was waiting for
the director to shout "Action". They also spoke about how a scene can be
changed after its filmed. For example, they referred to the scene in
Deliverance, (although Gillian used its original title of Leap Of Faith),
where Methos and the Watcher meet on the dock. The original script had
Duncan attack the Watcher in the phone booth, but the dialogue was looped in
in post-production for two reasons - first, to reflect the change in the
story and second, to compensate for the French actor's imperfect English.
Donna said that she had worked on a film last year which had been heavily
re-edited in the weeks before its release. She said that she had been in
the studio with five sitcom writers and that they had so many scenes where
dialogue had been looped in and, as a result, the editor was forced to use
shots of the back of the actor's head that they dubbed it "shoulder
theatre". She said that the director was trying to work out how to get his
name off the film! Gillian said that she could always tell when Lois &
Clark had come up short, as there would be five minutes of Clark playing
basketball before the story suddenly got going. Generally speaking, a
freelance writer would be given two weeks to turn that the outline into a
draft script, although this was not always as straightforward as it seemed.
When Karen Harris got the outline back for Timeless, she was asked to make
one small change - Walter had to be a nice guy and she wasn't to kill him at
the end.

Once the first draft is presented, the script then undergoes revision.
Gillian said that she would sit there reading the script wishing that Methos
and Amanda sounded like the Methos and Amanda she knew. She said that the
first draft of one episode that they were both in actually made her scream.
Sometimes, all that a script needed was a little fine-tuning, to make sure
that it followed the arcs for the season and that the locations were OK.
Some scripts, however, needed a page 1 rewrite and then they knew they were
in trouble. As examples of how the freelancers could get it right, they
said that Karen Harris came up with "Candygram!" and Michael O'Mahoney did
his research to come up with Silas' "we live, we grow stronger and then we
fight." Gillian said that she found it disconcerting when Forever Knight
took her first-draft script, sent it to Toronto and filmed it. The way they
worked on Highlander, the collaborative process would fix problems in the
script. Once David Abramowitz and Bill Panzer had approved the script, it
would be given to the Script Co-ordinator to prepare the shooting script,
after which the episode belonged to the director and, perhaps more so, the
assistant director who would prepare the shooting schedules and budgets for
the episode. Generally, there would be a preparation period of six to eight
days between the shooting script being released and filming beginning, so
that as one episode started shooting, the next episode was going into
preparation. Gillian said that the set people hated her for only giving
them six days to build the Mochi village and Temple and that they threatened
serious violence when she let them know that she had written that script at
the Vancouver wrap party!

They said that there was a tremendous investments by all of the staff in
Highlander, starting at the top down. Bill Panzer wanted to use Dust In The
Wind for Unholy Alliance and had paid for the royalty rights out of his own
pocket. Similarly, when they had wanted to use Stand By Me for the last
episode, David Abramowitz and Bill Panzer had said that they would find the
money. Gillian said that sometimes she had got what she wanted in a show by
offering to pay for it herself. To put this into comparison, they said that
most network shows had a budget that was a third greater than Highlander's.
They said that they were under pressure to re-use sets - not always
practical for some of the flashback sets, (although the yurts built for They
Also Serve had apparently resurfaced in an episode of Stargate SG-1).
Gillian had brought along production designer Rex Raglan's diary for
Prophecy, which was to be sold in the auction. The diary contained the
shooting schedule for the episode, which would include the assistant
director's summary of each scene, usually in six to nine words. For
Indiscretions, Donna said that she knew they had a problem when she saw that
the assistant director had summarised two scenes as "Methos and Joe talk",
with the next one being "Methos and Joe talk some more". They said that, if
a scene had two thugs in it, one would always talk and the other wouldn't,
one being an actor and the other being an extra, who cost a lot less. The
shooting schedule would list the requirements for each scene, including that
all props and set dressing. This was a very detailed list, so that
everybody involved with the production knew what was required, even if it
meant that they had to source a four-poster bed with a mounted wolf's head
pelt in six days! The production diary included blueprints of the sets and
even some storyboards that Rex had done.

The writers would get a phone call during the prep period when the script's
flaws became apparent. They said that they got a phone call during the
making of Epitaph For Tommy to say that it was November in Vancouver and it
didn't matter how warm it was in Los Angeles, they were not putting Adrian
in the water. Donna added that, after Avatar, there was a moratorium on
putting anybody in the Seine.

On one occasion, the script got to within one day of filming when a problem
was found. Morrie Ruvinsky had written a story for Season 2 called The
Chalice Of Saint Antoine, which was very Paris specific, with monks
featuring in the story as well as Amanda. With one day to go till filming,
they got a phone call to say that, as Morrie Ruvinsky, although Canadian,
lived in the United States, he couldn't write an episode to be filmed in
Paris. These kinds of problems got ironed out in later seasons, but right
there and then they needed a script, as Elizabeth Gracen was already in the
air on her way to Paris. They knew it had to be an Amanda story and David
Tynan came up with the idea of what would happen if Amanda's teacher got
killed, which became Legacy. Originally, they were going to make Amanda's
teacher Mac's enemy, an idea that got recycled in Reunion. Unlike some
shows which had a better budget, Highlander did not have a budget for
breakage, so every story had to be used. Only one story, an episode called
Trust, never got made, as Elizabeth Gracen was not available to film it and,
by the time she was, the story no longer fitted within the overall arc of
the Highlander story. However, elements of the story did resurface in Take
Back The Night.

When they came to film Season 3, they had to rework The Chalice Of Saint
Antoine. They said that they broke the story for weeks and that the final
script was written in what they elegantly termed a "gang bang". Gillian and
the two Davids set to work on Acts 1, 2 and 3, with the first one to finish
getting the prize of writing Act 4. The final, polished script, (which
brought little resemblance to the original story apart from the inclusion of
Amanda and the "Of Saint Antoine"), was sent off to Vancouver - then the
phones rang. As Donna put it, you remember the story, Joe's in love, he and
Lauren date and dance? Nope, the episodes too long and it's over budget -
Lauren can't talk. Yes, Gillian said, Chick #2 has no lines. They had to
kill her in the teaser. However, then the phone rang again, only this time
it was Dennis Berry, the director. Dennis is fascinated with US history and
had fallen in love with the fort where the flashback was set - he wanted the
flashback to be longer. At this point, the writers had been working on the
Mission Impossible sequence, getting Duncan and Amanda into the museum.
Remember the air sucking room? No, I don't either, because it got removed
to make way for the bigger fort. They said that it's normal television
practice to issue revised pages for a script on a different colour. In this
case, an entire new script in pink was issued. Then Dennis Berry did some
casting and decided that the actress playing the schoolteacher should have a
bigger part. Pieces of blue paper was sent to Vancouver, at which point
Adrian got on the phone. He loved the script, but wanted just one little
change - he wanted to get shot in the flashback. Another set of revisions
were issued and everything seemed OK, until Gillian collated all the changes
that have been issued and read what was now the final script. She was
horrified to see that Joe left one room twice and, presumably to keep things
even, the museum now had one room on two different floors. She revise the
script to eliminate the errors and, whilst she was doing it, stuck back in
the lines she had liked that had been taken out. She said she should have
known better, as the only way that happens is when an actor says what
happened to that line he really liked, as had happened with "20 years, six
months, what's the difference?", to which Gillian added, "thank-you, Peter
Wingfield". Then, Ken Gord rang. "We can't have a museum, how about a
house?"

This was the season when they built Joe's bar and there was a memo issued to
say that this set should be used as much as possible. However, in this
case, they'd used it too much. Normally, the shooting schedule will expect
to clear eight script pages per day or four per half day if the locations
are reasonably close. In this case, they had 11 pages of script set in
Joe's bar, which was just not the right number. However, they had a
suggestion as to how this could be fixed - move the breakfast scene from the
bar outdoors and have Joe drinking from a brown bag. This idea was quickly
scotched, (if you'll pardon the pun), but did resurface in Not To Be. By
now, the script is at revision seven. They had a read-through with the
actors the night before filming, which produced 25 pages of line changes.
After this, the writers could be forgiven for thinking that the script was
done, but no. Ken Gord rang and said that the episode was over budget and
that they couldn't afford the candyglass for Joe to break when he tries to
rescue Lauren. Could he just knock on the door instead? This clearly would
not have had the desired effect and so a trade was done, where what would
have been a procession on horseback into the fort became a procession on
foot and the horse was traded for the candyglass. Even this did not go
smoothly, as anyone who's seen the blooper tape will know. Generally, the
dailies would arrive in Los Angeles two to three days after filming in
Vancouver and anything up to a week after filming in Paris. In the dailies,
there's Jim Byrnes bashing the window, but the glass won't break. In the
end, he had used a painted crowbar to break the window. Later, Ken Gord
would admit at a convention that the candyglass window broke on the way to
the set and they had to use real glass, leading Donna and Gillian to claim
that "they broke our horse".

They then went on to show us how a scene is edited, using dailies from The
Fighter. Originally, it was to have been Tessa who would have been Sully's
tutor, but Charlie's part was upgraded after Alexandra Vandernoot's decision
to leave. They said that the flashback transition always got its own shot
and there was a separate memo about how it was to be done in each episode.
The teaching part gave Charlie something to do, but the girl didn't get to
speak, so she didn't get paid much. After we had seen all the individual
pieces of film, they showed us the scene as it appeared in the final
episode, complete with music. I didn't notice this when I first saw this
sequence at Chronicles '98, but Charlie's kissing a different girl in the
final scene than in the dailies!

They also showed us the car crashes from Diplomatic Immunity. Whilst they
could cheerfully bounce the stuntman off the hood of a Mercedes, they
couldn't do the same with a Rolls Royce for some reason... They also showed
us how post-production sound adds to the final effect, by showing us the
attack on Cassandra's village by the Horsemen with and without
post-production sound, which added music, horse noises, crowd sounds and a
lot more screaming. They then went on to show us how the production crew
actually made and the Mochi village in Little Tin God. All that had been
built was two halves of two huts and there was no top to the temple, the
village being constructed by copying the huts using the postproduction
equivalent of cut-and-paste. This technique was used again to create the
prisoners of war in Andersonville prison for The Messenger, as they only had
25 extras.

As a further example of what can be done, they showed us the component
elements used to make up the temptation scene from Armageddon, where Ahriman
offers Joe his legs. They also showed us the Quickening from Prophecy,
which prompted Donna to say that one of Adrian's hardest jobs was to make
the Quickening look good week after week. She added that he had to feel a
fool whilst he was doing it. Sometimes, they were able to bypass the
Quickening in the script, as they did with Chivalry, where the script
specifically said that they would cut away as the Quickening began, and in
Season 6, when they had a reduced budget, they had smaller Quickenings.
They said that using blue screen helped them and gave them more options with
the actor, as with the final sequence they showed us. This was Richie's
Quickening from The Messenger and they claimed that the version they showed
us was the version that appeared in the first rough cut of the episode as it
came from the editors - this was the infamous Surf's-Up Quickening.

Next up, F Braun McAsh's Q&A.

Paul Edmonds
http://www.pedmonds.f9.co.uk/highlander.html
"Wide angle watcher on life's ancient tales"


Ladeebkwrm

unread,
Jun 2, 2000, 3:00:00 AM6/2/00
to

On Fri, 2 Jun 2000 20:13:45 +0100, "Paul Edmonds"
<pa...@pedmonds.force9.co.uk> wrote:

>And here we go.....

What a great report, Paul. And all this info is just going to make
watching the show *that* much more interesting.

And kudos to Donna and Gillian (and all HL writers) - just *reading*
it gives me a headache - I sure can't imagine how you managed to turn
out such a wonderful show amidst all that!

Kristina

Dotiran

unread,
Jun 2, 2000, 3:00:00 AM6/2/00
to
>Gillian and Donna opened the first session of the Convention

Aaaaahhhh This one I printed off. Thanks Paul. If I can't seem to make it to
one of these "road shows" this is the next best thing *g*.


Dorothy aka Rottweiler on the Rysher forum


John Biltz

unread,
Jun 3, 2000, 3:00:00 AM6/3/00
to
Amazed by the detail as always, don't know how you do it.

Amazed Moose

"Paul Edmonds" <pa...@pedmonds.force9.co.uk> wrote in message
news:EPTZ4.3045$%5.144338@wards...

DonnaLetto

unread,
Jun 6, 2000, 3:00:00 AM6/6/00
to
>Gillian quoted Steve Barnes, who
>had written for Baywatch, but who was also a collaborator with Larry Niven,
>who, when asked about how he viewed the collaborative process, said "it's
>just think".

Actually, it's "It's just ink."

But your way works, too!

Donna

DonnaLetto

unread,
Jun 6, 2000, 3:00:00 AM6/6/00
to
>As examples of how the freelancers could get it right, they
>said that Karen Harris came up with "Candygram!" and Michael O'Mahoney did
>his research to come up with Silas' "we live, we grow stronger and then we
>fight."

Just to give them their proper recognition:

Karen Harris: "The alternative is unthinkable" (among others).

Michael O'Mahoney: "Candygram!"

Tony DeFranco: "We live, we grow stronger, and then we fight."

Donna

DMVTREK

unread,
Jun 16, 2000, 3:00:00 AM6/16/00
to
She said she should have
known better, as the only way that happens is when an actor says what
happened to that line he really liked, as had happened with "20 years, six
months, what's the difference?", to which Gillian added, "thank-you, Peter
Wingfield".

What show is this line from?

Dana
**************************************************************************
********
"Good must always triumph over evil. Did ya not know that?"-Duncan MacLeod
"I've found that Evil usually triumphs unless Good is very,very
careful."-Dr.McCoy


Juliana Chizda

unread,
Oct 14, 2016, 12:49:53 AM10/14/16
to
Are you still out there? Are you there? Highlander, on the 30th anniversary of the first movie, is enjoying a resurgence of life! There's a con!
http://www.lashconevents.com/highlander-30th

The Highlander Rewatchers are making podcasts about everything about the series. The Fandom Podcast Network has a series called Blood of Kings which is a real pleasure to hear.
Please enjoy their work, the 7-Parter on the first movie is fantastic!
https://soundcloud.com/highlander-rewatched

Highlander Veritas is a stop-motion series with figures, they recently made their short stories which may lead to more. This set takes place two years after Endgame, and is delightful. Though the Joe figure has terrifying teeth.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0MjU6TTKkk

Highlander: The Watcher, the movie made by Jeremy Orr and his people is alive and kicking. I have gotten to see it, and it's well done, and oh was I pleased.
https://www.facebook.com/HighlanderTheWatcher/

Highlander: Dark Places, by Andrew Modeen and HIS people also alive and kicking.
https://www.facebook.com/highlanderdarkplaces/

More things are going on.

There's a pair/trio of ladies, one's got her own LLC publishing company, and she sold her pitch well enough to get the holders of the property to allow her to publish books. She wants people to say that it isn't fanfic because they have a contract. Base premise: Tessa lives! That would be fine, except that it's also a universe with little to no care for anything that did not air on the show before Tessa died. She's also become a bit cold and has lost interest in being an artist. Duncan is condescending and doesn't want her to handle swords. Cassandra is now one of Duncan's many ex-lovers who tried to use her voice powers to steal him from Tessa. Also, in the second book, ONE Immortal has a) sired a child before his first death. b) taken heads on Holy Ground twice, which caused mass destruction and death blood everywhere volcanoes etc, and was going for a third. c) Could possibly have taken MacLeod...

Methos has a cameo in the first book in someone else's flashback. He wanders through the second story here and there, but no meetup occurs. He is obnoxious Methos, because the writers don't seem to know that, while playing Watcher, Methos pretends to be a geeky innocent child who you'd feel bad about bullying.
Reply all
Reply to author
Forward
0 new messages