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Grim Mandango - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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February 28th, 2006


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12:41 am - Grim Mandango
On Saturday, thanks to a heads-up from tamarai, I attended this workshop at 826michigan. Javier Grillo-Marxuach of Lost was going to talk about writing for television. It sounded like it could be interesting, and, hey, I could meet the illustrious chaodai.

First, however, I met tamarai and her husband at Jerusalem Garden for lunch. Turns out they have seating in the back. I satisfied my craving for falafel with hummus (which I had not eaten since I had one with aimeejmc and miracleman). Afterwards, Tamara and I killed time at Borders.

Tamara's husband dropped us off at the 826 building, and we went inside. Right there in the lobby was a man who looked suspiciously like Javi, but without his trademark yellow shades. Since I was only 99% certain and he was "off the clock," as it were, I didn't accost him. Instead, I confirmed to the nice young lady behind the counter that I was on the guest list and handed her a check for fifty tax-deductible dollars.

Another woman pointed us to the workshop room, which had food. Coke! Cupcakes! Puzzles!! The puzzles were not edible, and they were already finished, but they were still exciting.

Honestly, if I were feeling more inspired right now, I could do this place justice, because it was way cool. Many colors, very quaint. But I'll just hang on to my memory for now.

Javi came to the front and told us all to move in closer. There were only about eight of us. It was going to be intimate.

He began by acknowledging that we were most likely there because we were fans of Lost. He launched into a preemptive answer to that question of questions, "Do you have a plan?" Well, that depends on what you consider a plan. They came up with the answers to a lot of the big mysteries, like what the island is (it's not purgatory!) and what the monster is and whatnot, before the series even began. They had this stuff ready when they pitched the show. And before each season, they plot out the major revelations on a big whiteboard so they know what they're working toward. If that's a plan, then they have a plan. If that's not, then they don't. To me, it sounds like they have enough of a plan, in that they know things but don't exactly know how they're going to get there.

They had a minicamp before the series started, and the writers drew three or four characters' names out of a hat, and they were assigned to come up with their backstories. Javi was responsible for Jack, among others. I'm going to break chronology here and...probably not care that much about the chronology of the talk anyway.

Anecdote alert! Hurley was originally supposed to be some middle-aged pocket-protector-type guy, but Damon or J.J. or someone saw Jorge Garcia on Curb Your Enthusiasm and said, "Let's just get that guy." It was Javi's idea to make him Hispanic ("His name's Jorge [Garcia]." (He actually said "Jorge Reyes," heh.)). But his character was kind of in flux for most of the first season, and it wasn't till "Numbers" that it became solidified.

Javi also had Charlie, who was initially going to be the drummer who broke the brothers up, but they decided there was more drama if he were actually one of the brothers.

The main focus of the talk was to take us through the writing of Javi's script for "All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues," the episode where Charlie doesn't die. First, he read scenes from the first draft of the outline of the script, which was at that time called "What It Takes," because Jack's dad was always telling Jack he didn't have "what it takes."

The outline of the script read like a short story but with screenplay locations. And it was rather different from the episode as we knew it. On the trail, Jack and Kate are attacked by the Others...who shoot darts at them. Jack falls down the ravine and sees...his dad, who berates him. FlashJack...talks to the man whose wife died on the operating table. Locke is accompanied by...Arthur and Sullivan. They find the hatch...at the end of the third act. Jack and Kate actually...hear the Others drop Charlie from the tree to be hanged.

But let's go back a few notches to how this episode came together to begin with. Because they knew the island plot was about looking for Charlie and Claire, and as we've seen many times, people walking around in the jungle...gets kind of boring. They also knew it was a Jack episode and the flashbacks would explain the falling out between him and his father: he would rat him out to the head honchos. Somehow, Javi knew, this incident had to be driving his search for Claire, because the flashbacks need to be thematically resonant with what's happening on the island. And then it came: Claire was pregnant. Thus, whoever Jack's dad killed by negligence back then was pregnant as well. That would be the key revelation in the flashback story, and it was what anchored the episode. Jack wasn't just trying to save Claire; he was trying to save this woman from his past. That was the emotional core.

Javi then showed us what those scenes turned into, noting what changed. The darts were gone because...dude, darts? This isn't fucking Indiana Jones. Too cheesy. Also, they learned that the Others are scarier the less you see of them. They scrapped Jack's dad's ghost, because even though Javi thought it would be cool to have John Terry all foreboding and mean, it wouldn't work in the mythology of the show. Sure, Jack had seen his dad before, but having him talk would take it to a different level. Plus, what's scarier: Jack getting yelled at by his dad or Jack getting the crap kicked out of him by an unbeatable villain? The FlashJack scene was changed to put the focus on his dad. Rather than lie to the grieving man himself, he watches his dad lie to him from afar, and, Javi noted, he puts his hand on the man's shoulder the same way he'd put his hand on Jack's shoulder when asking him to lie for him.

Sullivan had been in a previous episode, "Walkabout," being bandaged for an injury. Arthur was new. Originally, they had thought, "Hey, let's get some of these random castaways to go off with Locke!" But then they thought, "Well, we're paying Ian Somerhalder for something, so let's send Boone with him too." And then they thought, "Well, we know we're killing Boone or Shannon in a few months, and we also know Boone and Locke are going to form some sort of mentor/mentee relationship that helps drive Locke and Jack apart, so...why not start that now?" Thus, only Locke and Boone went into the jungle. They try to get the most mileage out of what they have.

The title of the episode came when Javi was thinking about the Pete Townshend album All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, and he thought, "Well, that's not all they have."

He showed us the final script, which had revisions in colors ranging from salmon to goldenrod. The script was continually being revised, even during shooting. These new pages would be stuck in where they belonged, labelled "29A" or "37C."

He stressed that television writing was 75% collaborative. Only about 25% was going off and working on a script by yourself. Which is interesting, considering how we fluctuate between praising/blaming the writer of a specific episode and the writers in general. And of course, the showrunner(s).

Much was made about earning the trust of the audience and straining plausibility. Someone came up with the idea of Charlie dropping the Leaves of DriveShaft as a trail, and while, realistically, following a trail of four little bandages isn't going to work, it's more buyable than if Locke could smell Charlie's pee or something. Then, when Jack is trying to resurrect Charlie, proper CPR technique would call for Kate to be the one giving the breaths, but they sacrificed that bit of realism for the emotional core: this was about Jack, and it was something Jack had to do. And, in the end, it helped because Evangeline Lilly helped sell Charlie's death with her crying at the futility of it all. But Jack would not be dissuaded: in this episode, Kate is an obstacle, as Javi pointed out in the post-Ethan scene. Kate is resisting Jack's attempt to make right.

When he showed the FlashJack climax, Javi mentioned the importance of naming your characters properly. For some reason, he couldn't think of the term "Chief of Surgery," so he'd called him Head Doctor, which led to the rest of the writing team teasing him that they thought he was a shrink.

Javi said that of course they knew what was in the hatch; they didn't drop things into the show they didn't know what they were going to do with. Which, I don't know if he meant that they knew about Desmond and pushing the button and all that, because I thought that was pitched in late spring. At signings and stuff, they got so tired of people asking them, "What's in the hatch?" that they started writing things like, "There's a washing machine in the hatch!" Which sounds ridiculous but was in fact true.

The writers are constantly afraid of jumping the shark because they know they could do it with any episode. But they could jump and unjump and jump again, for all they know.

Let's bungle through the Q&A.

One question was regarding whether an actor could change a line. Javi was all, "NO!" It's the actor's job to interpret the line. Things can get seriously frelled if an actor changes a line because they don't look at things in context of the whole episode, just their scene, so they could unwittingly affect entire plotlines. Of course, even interpretations of lines can have their own ramifications. The character of Locke has resisted all their efforts to make him prophetic, and he has resisted all their efforts to make him evil. And it's all because of Terry O'Quinn, who, when given a line like "THE RAINS WILL COME!" shrugs it off with a "The rains will come." Another actor who's had an influence is Matthew Fox, who doesn't like playing the romantic comedy stuff, which is why they pulled back on the Jack/Kate banter.

Tamara asked him what current television shows he watched. He named Battlestar Galactica (which I "Woo!"ed, although I already knew he was a fan), 24, and, to my surprise, Gilmore Girls. He lamented the fact that people were missing out on a great show in BSG because they couldn't get past the spaceships, whereas with Lost, they used those off-putting sci-fi tropes sparingly. 24 was exciting for him, the kind of show he wouldn't let his wife interrupt, although writing for Lost had spoiled him for 24 because he could see what things needed to happen in order for the plot to go where it needed to go. GG he appreciated for its dialogue. Tamara then, of course, asked about Veronica Mars, and he said he hadn't seen it.

"What's wrong with you, man?!" I said.

He responded that what was wrong with him was that he only had time for so many shows; it wasn't that he didn't want to watch it or anything.

An old man asked him about getting into the television writing business, and Javi said it wasn't easy. They wouldn't just look at anything from an outsider. He described Morgan Spurlock as an example of someone who was able to break into television by conquering another genre first. With the success of Super Size Me, he had the cred to be able to make 30 Days. But of course, that's rare. The regular route is to write a lot of scripts, move to L.A., and work your way up the totem pole.

Javi wasn't intending on going into television. He went to film school, and on the application, it asked him how many projects he had seen from conception to completion. Luckily, he'd started a theater group when he was 14, so he was able to say he'd done a couple dozen plays, which surely helped him get in. His big break came when he got an e-mail about a position at NBC as a primetime series executive, preferably Latino. He fit the bill, so he applied, and he got the job. It was there that he was bitten by the television bug.

But still, it's all about cred. Lost wouldn't have been made if J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof weren't already well known for previous projects. And in fact, it wasn't even set up to be this megahit. The network was a little reluctant, and the head actually changed while the pilot was in development. So the person who ordered the series left, and now they were faced with someone who was asking, "Could you, I don't know, write an ending for the two-hour pilot?" To which J.J. said, "No."

And since we're on the subject of the pilot...the flashback structure of the show pretty much originated from the necessity of flashbacks in the pilot. J.J. wanted to begin the pilot with a man waking up and then discovering the plane wreckage on the beach, but then he figured he should probably show what happened before the plane crashed. They stuck with that format for the show. Also, as most people know, Jack was supposed to be killed. But then they couldn't figure out who would take over his role. Most shows were anchored by a white authoritarian figure (Fox Mulder, House, Jack Bauer, Gil Grissom, etc.), and Jack was a doctor! He could do doctor-y things!

Javi hasn't met a single person who doesn't like Mr. Eko, the drug lord who is not even a real priest and has shot two men in cold blood. Yet, Ana-Lucia is...well, you know. He admits that Michelle Rodriguez is a controversial, edgy actress, and that he thought they might win people over with her backstory, but he's still glad people care enough about her to love or hate her. At the very least, she's consistent.

Somewhere in here, he discussed the notion of ideas and how worthless they are. "Someone steals your idea? Who cares?" Tamara and I exchanged a meaningful glance. In television writing, things are so collaborative people often forget what they were actually responsible for, in the end. Ideas are a dime a dozen; it's what you do with them that counts.

The woman behind me, who gave up television for a long time and now only watches one show a year (and may I say I hate people who parade that fact around like it makes them so much better than everyone else), asked if there was some sort of network pressure not to allow characters to evolve because she was convinced, convinced I tell you! that the network must have told them, "No, you can't evolve Sayid into anything more than a torturer!" Which was...strange, because I, like Tamara, disagreed that Sayid hasn't grown as a character. Javi also disagreed but respected her right to that opinion. Lost was a show about the inability to escape your past, the experiences that make you who you are, and Sayid tapped into something many years ago and discovered that he was, in fact, a torturer, however much he tried to deny that fact. There was no network intervention at play here. Sometimes there is writer intervention, of course, because they realized that this season, Sawyer had turned into the Fonz. So to give him his edge back, they had him play a long con to make him the outcast again, because Sawyer needs people to hate him because he can't accept love. Javi seemed to have a really good grasp on all the characters and their motivations.

I prefaced my question with the fact that I didn't really know what the question was but it had something to do with the "integrity of the narrative." I told him that, regarding BSG, I'd recently discovered that Ron Moore had no idea what was going on with the Helo/Boomer storyline, and it came out practically by accident, and yet that's been one of the driving storylines of the series, and before I got to the crux of the issue, Javi picked up on it and said, "I don't care that he didn't know." He said that was the best kind of storytelling because television was a living, breathing organism, and while that may sound a little twee, it was true in practice. Oftentimes, the writers would make comments like, "I don't think the show wants to do this." He trusted Ron Moore to take the story in the right direction. Some writers, he wouldn't, but Ron had built up a lot of Star Trek cred.

The fandom question! He loves the fans. I mean, he has his own fan club. And he's amazed at the things people notice and pick up on. When asked if he listened to ideas, he very seriously said, "No!" That's where you have to draw the line. You can't write the show the fans want. He doesn't read fanfic; he doesn't look at theory boards. Although he does get a kick out of TWoP and the bitterness thread because the people seem to hate the show more fervently than the people who actually enjoy the show love it. He talked about D:LA and how fun it was. Ultimately, however, he recognized that the online fanbase comprised about a hundred thousand very vocal people, which was a tiny, tiny fraction of their entire viewership. He knew they weren't representative. For instance, even if a spoiler were posted on AICN, how many people would read it in comparison to the millions of viewers across the country? Not that many.

There was a bit about voices, and how Lost kind of has its own voice that makes it hard to distinguish individual writers. And he couldn't have the characters on Lost talk the way he writes his characters in his comic, The Middleman. And the gangster monkeys have to have a consistent voice, even though they're gangster monkeys.

Oh, and there was stuff about trusting your audience, and he lambasted Spawn, which began with a text card, a voiceover, a flashback, and then another voiceover. And he also dissed the Star Wars prequels.

That's about all I can remember coherently from the Q&A. Javi promised not to disappear.

I introduced myself as "Sunil, spectralbovine from LiveJournal," and added that the_partyman sent a hi and a mandango. Javi warned against trying to give me a mandango, as I'd probably hurt myself. As I didn't exactly know how to perform one, he was safe. He explained that you basically grab the other person entirely and pick him up, and he'd hurt his back mandangoing "The Speaker" (speakerwiggin) in L.A. Someone else greeted him, and I went back for a Coke. As I was getting a drink, Javi called back for me not to go yet. I had not intended to, but cool!

I went back and listened to this guy, who, according to Tamara, looked like James Blunt, ask Javi about fifty thousand more questions. From his answers, however, we learned that an upcoming episode contains what he believes will be the most pored-over, analyzed image on the show, ever. And he wrote the text.

When Mr. Inquisitive finally left, Javi chatted with Tamara and me for a bit. He asked if I was from Ann Arbor, and I explained my situation. When I told him I'd recently gotten a job medical writing, he responded that he'd done some of that. At first I thought he was joking, but he wasn't. He said he hated it; it had made him a hypochondriac. I talked with him about my writing drought. I told him I'd really liked his post about how the Jedi are the bad guys. I don't remember what all we talked about, really. But it was a good time, and he liked meeting LiveJournal people. The reason he'd wanted to talk to me was to ask what I was doing in Ann Arbor, since he'd gone to high school here. And here I thought he just wanted to bask in my coolness a little bit longer.

I sheepishly produced the camera I'd brought and felt very starfucker-y asking to take a picture with the famous person, but it's what I do. We even took two because the flash didn't go off the first time (he turned the light off to fool the flash into working the second time).

And that was Javi. I'm still disappointed he didn't wear his supercool yellow shades.
Current Mood: stressedstressed
Current Music: KMFDM - These Boots Are Made for Walkin'

(22 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:sterope
Date:February 28th, 2006 05:54 am (UTC)
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What a neat experience! I sure love the Lost.
[User Picture]
From:the_partyman
Date:February 28th, 2006 06:10 am (UTC)

Nice write up. :)

(Link)
I feel that I should point out that the mandango in itself is generally a very safe and friendly activity.

However I admit that in an excitable situation such as a Fan Party, accidents can happen - and Javi, Speaker, and myself are not exactly small or tiny men.
[User Picture]
From:alliterator
Date:February 28th, 2006 06:29 am (UTC)
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Damn. You meet all the cool writers.

Um, I mean, good for you!
From:hobviously
Date:February 28th, 2006 06:50 am (UTC)
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I think I do, in fact, hate Lost far more fervently than most Lost fans I know love it. Ha! I win!!!

I want to go to a tv writer workshop. Damn.
[User Picture]
From:thetheatremouse
Date:February 28th, 2006 07:33 am (UTC)
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You know I'd been holding in, for days, the impulse to ask if you intended to do such a write up. Glad you did. I really think the best vacation ever would be to go somewhere and have constant three-hour chats with different television writers. Just let them go, talk, and listen. After three hours, switch and listen to a new one. That'd be the life.
[User Picture]
From:iheartbridges
Date:February 28th, 2006 08:23 am (UTC)
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Coke! Cupcakes! Puzzles!! The puzzles were not edible, and they were already finished, but they were still exciting.
I love puzzles.

who gave up television for a long time and now only watches one show a year (and may I say I hate people who parade that fact around like it makes them so much better than everyone else)
Werd.

Sounds like you had an awesome time. So neat.
From:cerulgalactus
Date:February 28th, 2006 08:49 am (UTC)
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Why are you so damn cool?
[User Picture]
From:alannaofdoom
Date:February 28th, 2006 01:16 pm (UTC)
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My Awesome Boss was a producer and wanted to write for tv for a very long time when she was younger, and she keeps telling me I should start writing spec scripts. Anyway, I am jealous. Seems like a very cool workshop.

::grin:: too long a write-up, though - you're making me late for work. Ha.
[User Picture]
From:pixie37373
Date:February 28th, 2006 02:29 pm (UTC)
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you do the coolest things..
[User Picture]
From:tamarai
Date:February 28th, 2006 03:03 pm (UTC)
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Man, I didn't realize how much my memory has deteriorated since I was 24. I didn't remember half of what happened, so I'm especially glad you posted a recap! Thankie.

Javi did a pretty good impression of Terry O'Quinn, complete with the shrug/arm reach, on "The rains will come."

Yeah, that no-TV woman was a wee bit pretentious. And Mr. Questions looked eerily like James Blunt, but I'm fairly sure it wasn't him, as he did not have a British accent. I totally missed Javi mentioning the upcoming ep with the "pore over, analyze" image. Rats. Can you elaborate?

One thing that must be mentioned: We exchanged an even more meaningful glance when Javi said something about Standards & Practices. (I believe Sunil may even have flashed The Shocker.) We should have told Javi that he really must watch VM to see how the masters manage to slip all kinds of things past S&P.

And according to Javi, the hundred thousand fans on the internet are not only vocal, but "highly intelligent." Thought I should share that with y'all.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:February 28th, 2006 03:08 pm (UTC)
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Man, I didn't realize how much my memory has deteriorated since I was 24.

Gosh, what have you been doing to your brain the last four years?

Javi did a pretty good impression of Terry O'Quinn, complete with the shrug/arm reach, on "The rains will come."

Oh, yeah, it was spot-on.

I totally missed Javi mentioning the upcoming ep with the "pore over, analyze" image. Rats. Can you elaborate?

No. Because...that's all I've got. He didn't say anything at all about what the image could possibly be.

(I believe Sunil may even have flashed The Shocker.)

That I did.
[User Picture]
From:tamarai
Date:February 28th, 2006 03:14 pm (UTC)
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Gosh, what have you been doing to your brain the last four years?

You're too kind. But I'm a sucker for an age-related compliment, so thanks!

[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:February 28th, 2006 03:17 pm (UTC)
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Both of you look much younger (like, eight or ten years) than you are.
[User Picture]
From:tamarai
Date:February 28th, 2006 03:22 pm (UTC)
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Thank you, I have an aging portrait in the attic. And I'll pass along the compliment!

Love that icon. Another area where I am woefully deficient.
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From:bspalek
Date:February 28th, 2006 03:43 pm (UTC)
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I don’t even watch that show any more (for obvious reasons, and I do plan on renting the DVDs), but I am really jealous. That sounds like such an awesome experience. And hee to your asking him “What’s wrong with you, man?”
From:vandalisimo
Date:February 28th, 2006 04:22 pm (UTC)
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Very cool, thanks for sharing.
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From:cleapet
Date:February 28th, 2006 07:32 pm (UTC)
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Ditto, that's interesting info. Thanks for sharing.
(Deleted comment)
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From:toughcookie42
Date:March 2nd, 2006 05:03 am (UTC)
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I find it sort of depressing that television writing is 75% collaborative. I'd rather just blame one guy for the current beyond-shitty season of SVU, and the last few seasons of XF, and season 5 of Oz... But a whole TEAM of writers can't keep it on track? Shit. There's a job for me- Shitty Television Prevention. I'd just veto crappy story arcs and character assassinations and continuity problems.
[User Picture]
From:mycenae
Date:March 3rd, 2006 02:41 am (UTC)
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The 826[location] tutoring centers are great. (I say this because I volunteer at 826LA and anything that promotes them is Benevolent and Wise.)

Just out of curiousity- did he say anything about people seeing the "leaves of driveshaft" as a LotR reference? Was that intentional at all or just a happy accident?

Do the Lost writers get to live in Hawaii, too? Or are they kept somewhere dingy and soul sucking in LA?

Sometimes there is writer intervention, of course, because they realized that this season, Sawyer had turned into the Fonz.

Hee. I knew he was becoming unsatisfactory, but I just couldn't place it...

Also, the "Jedi are the bad guys" link actually goes to the Tigh entry... I say this not in a bitchy, internet-police sort of way, but because it sounds quite humorous and my search for it on his lj has failed.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:March 3rd, 2006 02:50 am (UTC)
(Link)
Just out of curiousity- did he say anything about people seeing the "leaves of driveshaft" as a LotR reference? Was that intentional at all or just a happy accident?

Heh. He didn't mention that.

Do the Lost writers get to live in Hawaii, too?

Hm. Good question! I don't know.

Also, the "Jedi are the bad guys" link actually goes to the Tigh entry... I say this not in a bitchy, internet-police sort of way, but because it sounds quite humorous and my search for it on his lj has failed.

Aw, crapshaite. Check back in about five minutes; I'll fix it.
(Deleted comment)

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