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08/13/2008: Soapy Scenes
Oh, such an adventure today, Gentle Readers! I got to go on a tour of the sets and entire operation of a daytime drama. You might think that the world of television writing is sort of homogeneous all the way through -- like a potato. But it's not. The worlds of comedy and drama have undergone some cross-pollinating in recent years, and if you work on a prime-time comedy, it's possible you might even find yourself interacting with writers from the late-night world of Conan, Dave or Colbert, but soaps -- they are unknown territory.
The effect is something like divergent evolution, as if soaps were put on an island in the early days of television, where they've continued to develop along their own lines, uninfluenced by the rest of the TV world. Their job titles and terminology and methods are similar to the rest of the business, but just different enough to cause delightful confusion.
The production aspects are insane-- the show I visited doesn't shoot, as you might assume, an hour's world of material each and ev'ry blessed day. No. They do FIVE shows in FOUR days. So it's more than one standard episode every working day. With no hiatus, of course. Year 'round, I'm sayin'. Holy cats. A single actor might be in seven, nine, eleven scenes in one day. I was told of one case in which and actor, trying to clear their schedule so they could take a week of... that one actor shot over twenty scenes in one day.
The sound stages look very much like sitcom stages, only without audience seating. The rooms have no fourth walls, and there are four cameras shooting into the sets, getting all the angles at once. Most scenes are shot in one take -- taking as little as minutes to complete. The sets themselves are moved overnight as the ones needed for the next episode are moved in to replace the previous day's configuration. This show uses four directors -- one directs all the eps shot on Mondays, another all the eps shot on Tuesdays... I'm telling you, it's wild.
Oh, and the director blocks all the scenes well in advance of shooting and all the sets are pre-lit to fit that blocking during the night before shooting. In other words, the actors don't get any input on where they stand. What's your motivation for crossing the room? Well, that's where the light is, bub. Oh, and the director sits in a control booth, watching monitors there, not on the set.
Now let's try to imagine the challenges for the writing staff! If everything goes smoothly, all you have to do is produce a full script every single day, year 'round. And they have only a few more writers than a standard prime time hour drama. So they cannot, obviously, run a standard story-break room. The system that evolved was for years, at least at this show, a sort of three-tiered system - a few top writers craft the overall story arcs. Mid-level writers work with them to turn those arcs into things that look a lot like traditional episode outlines, and an array of writers below that (who do not even have to be local to Los Angeles), take those outlines and quickly generate the dialogue while adhering slavishly to the outlines because any adjustment they might make would affect all the other moving parts of this speeding train.
Recently it seems that the middle of that particular snack cake may be disappearing -- the higher-ups are creating things with a more outline-y flavor and the lower-downs are being given more autonomy to do a bit of structuring on their own. By this I mean that they're told in which act a given scene goes, but not in which order. Of course, if it's ultimately decided they got the order wrong, the scenes just be reordered in editing. Again, I must say that I'm fascinated. When the finished scripts come back to the top writers, they do rewrites in a process that they were calling "editing," which sounds very odd to my ears, as much of this did. It was like finding a foreign country within our own shores.
Now, soap writing has often been disparaged, but once you view the necessities of the process, it's frakking amazing what they're able to accomplish. By the way, one of the results of the process is that there is even more of a premium on chameleonship in this writing than there is in prime time writing. If a script reflects the individual voice of a particular writer it can be somewhat distracting (or wonderful, depending on the show and your point of view on these things) in a prime time show, but in a show that airs every day and that has beloved characters with decades of history behind their voices, a reliable consistent authorial sense is absolutely required. That great new spin you put on that scene is going to be the spin that tears the machine apart.
Okay, now imagine what happens when the process doesn't run smoothly -- what if an actor has an emergency and can't show up, for example? Or what if an episode turns out too long and a B-story has to be cut -- how does that affect the next day's script? What if an actor doesn't like a story line and requests a change? Imagine that one-script a day train coming at you!
So what should you do if this work appeals to you? After all, it is one of the few Hollywood jobs that doesn't require you to live in Hollywood. And it does seem to provide an unusual example of job security -- almost everyone I met seemed to have been there a decade or more, some much more. Well, unfortunately, daytime drama does not appear to be a growth industry. And the downside of all that job security is that there are never any openings. So it's hard to recommend that anyone pursue this as their do-or-die gonna-make-it-in-shobiz option. But I have to say that there is something very appealing in this high-pressure high-output write it now-now-now world. I can imagine myself wanting to try it just to test my mettle -- but can you write... faster?
ADDENDUM: If you follow the link on this page (over on the right-->) to the ABC/Disney writing fellowship, you will see that one of the programs that is offered there is actually specifically for daytime (soap) writing. So if this is for you, that would be the place to start!
Lunch: chicken breast and mozzarella sandwich from the studio cafeteria! TV hospital food is much better than actual hospital food.