Last week I had the opportunity to submit In Mind We Trust as a pilot for a TV or Web series. As some of you know, In Mind We Trust is the sequel to Justice Is Mind. When I wrote the sequel a couple of years ago, I think the idea for a series was always in the back of my mind.
The question I had before I submitted was that the pilot might not make sense unless someone watches Justice Is Mind. The response back was pretty straight forward. “…to have a lot of unanswered questions at the end of a pilot script — it opens up the world any mysteries for the series.” Well if there’s questions they want, they’ll get it with this story!
It’s stories this industry wants and needs. Sure we read how the major studios are just focused on tentpoles (I loved Wonder Woman by the way), but the terrestrial networks and OTT services just continue to expand and need programming to fill their schedules. With Apple, Facebook, Vice and others actively moving to original series orders, the quest for stories continues.
The one piece of advice I was given when living in Los Angeles was to always have more than one project ready to present. I didn’t fully grasp it at the time, but it makes total sense. Some may love sci-fi but have no interest in political thrillers. Others may not want something sports related, but are looking for a drama. Well, the latter fit the bill with In Mind We Trust.
Personally, if I had my druthers, who wouldn’t want to see their concept set up at a Netflix or Amazon. When I see the production values of The Crown and The Man in the High Castle (two of my favorite shows), it’s just amazing where the industry has gone over the last several years. But like anything in this business, it’s about time and in the case of a series—staffing.
Unlike a movie that can be staffed pretty quickly, a series requires an unprecedented amount of personnel. Just take a look at the end credits of a show or their listings on IMDB. These aren’t just one off projects like a movie, these are, if the show succeeds, long-term commitments. But before any of this is even remotely considered, it comes down to the story itself.
When I think of the number of mind-reading, privacy and intelligence agency articles being published on a regular basis, I certainly think In Mind We Trust has as good a chance as any of getting a review. Thankfully, the concept has already gone through some market testing with Justice Is Mind. From a theatrical release to media coverage and VOD, anyone looking at this project can already see it’s more than just words on a page.
Today I finished Act Two of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating. With a story that traverses a season in the sport along with over 40 characters on and off the ice, this stage of the writing process is a point of reflection. It’s a point when I review my notes (there are 25 pages) and read the script from the beginning. I liken it to building a road. The “earthwork” has been done, but it needs to be paved. For me, the Final Act (or in this case Act Three and/or Four) is both the most exciting and nerve wracking. Why? Because the road has to lead to a destination — a conclusion.
Every writer works in their own way. And while books, seminars and industry experts dictate how you should do the process, I promise if you talked to ten different screenwriters you would get ten processes of mixed results. For me, I look at a character or story arc and see if it has evolved. Nothing is worse than watching a movie and not seeing a character or story resolution. I’d rather take some extra time to get the last acts right than have audiences leaving disappointed or, worse, with a predictable ending.
When I wrote Justice Is Mind the initial premise was someone facing their own memory at trial. But for anyone that has seen the movie, while that may be the central core, there’s a conflux of other activities going around it. In my view, nothing is linear in real life and it shouldn’t be in film. For me, I always love a good twist at the end or a surprise ending. Two of my favorites with surprise endings are The Sixth Sense and Witness for the Prosecution. Both films couldn’t be more different in genre, but they brilliantly pulled off an ending that I don’t think anyone saw coming. As of this moment, I believe I have the surprise ending all set for this story, but as it’s not written yet that can certainly change!
As for a mix of things, there was a great practical article in Forbes titled How To Finance An Independent Film by Bryan Sullivan. While I’ve known about these steps for some time, it was nice to see a “drama” free article just present the facts. Often with the trades or some of the bloggers I follow (or used to follow), there’s this air of judgment or bias in their reporting that does nothing but lecture. This is an industry of creatives that develop stories for an audience. And while there most certainly are standard ways to accomplish that, the last thing we need to hear are “You can’t do this” or “You can’t do that” when it comes to building projects. Bottom line, all projects and their path to market take different roads.
I’ll admit there is a certain satisfaction in creating an original story. In the case of this story around the sport of figure skating, it’s worked out well so far that I was involved in the sport in so many different areas. From skating (I passed that Junior Free before the rule changes!), to teaching, to publishing a magazine for the sport to TV analyst work, I can say that this story travels from learn to skate, to receptions to the world championships with the FBI and NSA steadfastly involved that builds a story that takes us around the world.
Representing the United States.
“I want Spotlight to win” was my Facebook post last Sunday before the Oscars started. While 2016 yielded some excellent films (Trumbo, Bridge of Spies, The Martian and Woman in Gold), there was something about Spotlight that just felt right. Not only was the story itself important, along with the mechanics of quality investigative journalism, but you couldn’t have asked for finer actors either. What was right from the beginning was the screenplay. In addition to winning the Oscar for Best Picture, it also won the first award of the evening for Best Original Screenplay.
As this article in The Hollywood Reporter stated, Spotlight took eight years to produce. But once Participant Media got involved as producer and with Open Road Films distributing, the rest, as they say was history. As Sierra/Affinity CEO Nick Meyer said, “the movie is the star now.” Indeed that star is the screenplay because as Tom Ortenberg said in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “The theatrical marketplace is a roller coaster. And anybody who wants to play has to be prepared for that fact.”
For all of us trying to make sense of the volatile nature of this industry, particularly when it comes to a theatrical release, it all comes down to the story. When I released Justice Is Mind into theaters, every one of our screenings was heavily marketed with an angle. We had to have an angle, because although we had a great cast and crew, nobody was a household name. The film had to sell itself. Thankfully, the media and audiences responded and the majority of our screenings were near or capacity audiences (there were no rentals).
But like the real “Spotlight” team at The Boston Globe did those years ago, writing a screenplay takes research and dedication. When I recall the research I did for First World when it came to the space program, the criminal justice system and neuroscience for Justice Is Mind and various workings of the executive branch, military operations and intelligence agencies for SOS United States, that work laid the foundation of the story before I wrote one word of dialogue. Of course we all want to see our screenplays come to life on the big screen, but as we saw with Spotlight, some things just take time. Why rush for quantity when you can have quality? In the case of Spotlight, that quality saw two Oscar wins.
Last week I finished the pitch document for Justice Is Mind as a TV series with the pilot In Mind We Trust already written. The process of getting some industry feedback has already begun. Having pitched a TV series around the sport of figure skating back in 2004, I’m familiar with the process. Of course, back around that time there were about 30 or so scripted series, now there are around 400. While times and processes have changed, it’s still all about coming up with the idea for a story.
As for changing times and figure skating, an idea came to me some months ago about a political thriller with figure skating as the backdrop to the storyline. Of course, it’s been some years since I actually attended a figure skating event. The last “Worlds” I attended as credentialed media was 2003 in Washington, D.C. So with The Ashton Times credentialed, I will be attending Worlds in a few weeks.
When I wrote Justice Is Mind in 2010 I had no idea that the science of mind reading and its related legal and ethical implications would present itself in the real world the way it did (Pamela Glasner’s article in The Huffington Post pretty much sums it up). There’s no question this public awareness helps when I market the film.
In the sequel, In Mind We Trust, part of the storyline picks up from the end of Justice Is Mind – lost artwork from WWII. In the story it’s revealed that Wilhelm Miller worked in transportation whose responsibility was to ship stolen artwork via train, artwork that disappeared at the end of the war and begins to resurface through the Miller family.
It is oddly ironic that over the last few weeks there has been substantive media attention to an alleged underground NAZI gold train that disappeared at the end of the war. Apparently, a death bed confession revealed its whereabouts. There’s no question that there are countless unresolved mysteries from that time period. And the stealing of artwork, gold and other treasures during the war is another horrid atrocity that the world continues to face and rightly so. Now that Poland’s military is involved in the search, we should have a resolution one way or the other sooner rather than later.
But then we move forward in time to First World and SOS United States. When I wrote First World back in 2006 sure China had ambitious plans with their space program. But I had no idea it would move along at the pace it has. There’s no question, that unless something substantive happens to China’s economy, that country will land a man on the Moon. Much like the space race when the Soviet Union successfully put Sputnik in orbit, it was a wake-up call to the United States. And wake-up our country did by landing a man on the Moon in 1969. Curious how Russia announced this past week they are going to the Moon. Something tells me that China and Russia will soon be cooperating.
This of course brings us to SOS United States. Although China is moving along at a rapid clip, they are disadvantaged in certain areas of military might, particularly in aircraft carrier development, thus the conflict in my political thriller around the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and her ordnance.
But it is the continued cyber-attacks by groups in China directed against United States interests that really is the crux of the world we live in and a major plot element in SOS United States. And let us not forget how Chinese warships entered United States waters off Alaska this week.
In my view, every film whether the subject is good, bad or indifferent needs some sort of hook. Something that will pull the audience in from the real world while they escape into the narrative world of a movie.