Anything but That

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

A few years ago, we had a pilot ordered to series. I know, I know: hard to believe. But there was a time, I promise, when thing like that did happen.

The bad part about finding out that you have show on the air is that everybody else finds out too. Which means that every agent in town knows you've got twelve episodes of a series to write and produce, and are therefore going to be hiring writers.

The minute the announcement is made -- and sometimes way before -- the office phone rings in what sounds like one continuous chirp -- all day, starting early, and going late. Agents with clients to pitch, agents telling you that this writing team is "so hot right now," that what you heard about that supervising producer are "wicked lies, she's great, really, does not, repeat not have anger problems," agents trying to do what they call "get you into a room" with their client. Mostly, though, it's agents telling you they're going to send just one script -- "really! Just one or two or maybe six at the most, just my top clients, just the ones I think fit, tonally, with your project which I love by the way" -- and then sending a carton of twenty-six over.

The only way to handle the towering pile of scripts -- every single one of which we read, or mostly read, all of the way through, or mostly all of the way through -- is to get organized. So we draw up a grid, divide the piles, keep track of the ones we've read, the one's we're passing on, the ones we want the other partner to read, the ones we think are terrific, all laid out in a neat little grid.

Look, I'll be honest: most of the time, we call the agent back and tell him that while we think his client is a fine writer, we really didn't respond to the material. Like that? "Don't respond to the material." It's as if neither one of us is at fault. Don't respond. And you can say it a bunch of ways, too. I didn't respond. My fault. Somebody else will. I didn't respond, meaning, liked it, didn't love it.

Most agents will get it and quickly move on to selling you another client. Some will say, "It's not on the page! You need to get into a room with him." Some will say, "I didn't respond to it either! But tonally, I think it's right." Once, an agent said to me, "My client isn't so great at the writing part, but he's good, administratively." Which I've never figured out.

The worst response I ever got to "I didn't respond to it," was "You know, he's here in my office. I'm going to put you on speaker. Tell him what you didn't respond to."

Which was an act of excellent, aggressive agentry. Because before he could unplug his headset, I had stammered and stumbled and agreed to "get in a room" with the client, who, it turned out, was a nice guy and pretty funny and because I'm Episcopalian and deeply conflict-averse, we ended up hiring.

I'd do better, though, if I could figure out how to be direct. How to be definitive. How to say "no," and "pass," rather than weasel-wording it with a "I didn't respond to the material."

There's an old story about a director who was shooting a movie with an actress who wasn't so great. When they got to a crucial scene in the script, after the first take, he called cut, walked up to the actress, thought for a minute, and then gave the best piece of direction I've ever heard.

"Anything but that," he said.

Talk about not responding to the material.

That's it for this week. Next week, we'll watch reruns. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long