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Writers' blog - Episode 6


By Peter Cox

Hello and welcome to the blog for THE CULT episode 6.

Lately, I've had a few people asking me questions about the show, and not just harassing me to tell them about secrets in the story, but simply the process of writing it. So I thought for this blog I'd do something a little different, by talking more generally about the process of writing a television drama. I'd imagine that anyone reading this has more than a passing interest in television drama, and perhaps there are even some future writers, so hopefully I'll be able to pass on some insights that might be helpful.

Firstly, generally an episode of television drama will begin life in the story room. This is the place where the storyliners will get together and throw about a bunch of ideas, and start to put them together and arrange them in an order that feels logical and dramatic.

For THE CULT, we made a decision fairly early to focus different episodes on different characters, so that slowly the truth behind what's going on could be pieced together through the flashbacks and secrets of our main characters. We wanted to give an inkling of the truth of the series to the audience before the realizations came to our main characters.

It's a bit like a murder mystery - clues we could put down that an observant viewer might be able to piece together and realize who the murderer is, perhaps even before the detective. We already knew what clues we wanted to reveal, and in what order, so our story sessions tended to begin with looking at which character would be best to reveal what clue. At this point, one of the writers in the storylining session would begin to feel they might have a strong feeling about a character and story, and, armed with a day or two's notes from the story room discussion, they would head off on their own to work on a 'treatment'.

The 'treatment' is a 5-15 page short story version of the episode you're planning to write. There's a fair bit of plot detail needed here, as with television drama there's often a team of writers, and everything needs to be coordinated. It's important that writers have a bit of freedom to go off on a tangent and surprise themselves, but because episodes are often being written simultaneously, we need to make sure that if one writer decides it might be a brilliant idea to make a character fall in love, or shave off their hair, or explode in a hail of gunfire, then it's possibly going to effect the writer who's working on the next script! So the treatment is the chance to try a few things before everyone gets into the hard yards of writing the script, so no one's wasting time writing a story for a dead, bald character. It's also a chance for the writer to really boil down the basics of the plot, and find the spine of the story, before heading into writing the dialogue and nailing down the details.

In a fast moving process like THE CULT was, it tends to take about 2-3 weeks to write a first draft. After the draft goes out from the writer, the notes come back. There are quite a few people who may have comments about the new script: producers, script and story editors, other writers, directors, and the network executive. And that's before the actors have had their read-through. From those notes everyone will sit about and come up with a plan for the next draft.

It's at this point things become hard, but if you've done your homework, you can survive it all and end up with a much better version. And by homework I mean making sure you still know what it is about the story that is exciting and interesting to you: Why - in its most elemental essence - is this story worth watching? I wrote a little about this in my first blog entry which was essentially about what value there might be in writing about a cult, so upon getting the notes. It's at this point I look back on what the original inspiration was and figure out how these notes fit into that context: whether I've lost my way, or am still on track, is there something that doesn't fit with that, is further discussion required?

Hopefully at this point though, this original idea will have been discussed by everyone pretty thoroughly, and so at the core, we're all on the same page with regard to where we're heading, so any disagreements are generally pretty constructive, and the draft gets better.

Somewhere around this point a script will be 'published', this means that it is printed out and officially sent around all the production departments. It's vital that everyone takes a look at the script early: actors may need to be cast; art department may need to get hold of special props; a special lens might be required for a camera; locations might have to scouted; costumes found, so it's vital that a script arrives a good few weeks before the actual shoot time so everyone has a good chance to look at it and figure out what's required.

And then they budget it.

It's about this time someone comes back and suggests that your genius 3am plan for your CGI werewolf shootout car crash dream sequence is really great and all, but will actually bankrupt the company, so is it really that necessary, and is there not another - maybe even better - way to do it? And there almost always is. Having said that it's always worth throwing in something a little mad, and push it a little. I'm constantly amazed at how the team on The Cult has made things I'd never thought we'd get away with work, usually even better than I'd imagined. Go team.

Anyway, from there the actors read-through the script, which inevitably results in some quick reworking, both because of their (always wonderful) notes, and the fact that you've just heard the thing out loud with an audience for the first time (which is always scary as hell no matter how many times you've been through it).

Any changes you've made have been printed and added to everyone's 'published script'. Each new version is sent out on different coloured pages, so there's no mix-ups over which are the old and new pages. This is why you might hear redrafts referred to as the 'blue pages' or 'red pages', by the time a script reaches the first day of shooting, it's about twice as fat and has all the colours of the rainbow.

Of course, it doesn't happen this way for everyone. Apparently David Milch, the creator of Deadwood lay on his back with his eyes closed and spoke the final script out loud off the top of head where it was recorded by a small army of attendants and rushed out the door at the last minute. Of course, that may just be a story.
Anyway, that's more than enough for today. Thanks for reading. Hope you're enjoying the show.

Cheers.
Peter


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