Taking it to the TV Screen

Screenwriters discuss the complications, pains and pleasures of penning movies-of-the-week and miniseries.

by Matthew Hays

A clear indication of keen audience interest in social issues, the movie-of-the-week, or MOW, has proven a trusted means of reaching solid ratings figures.

Often touching on controversy, the formula or script template for the made-for-TV movie or miniseries was set in the US, where, in the mid-’60s, networks began producing issue-driven movies that would be seen exclusively on TV so as to compete with the theatrically-released features. Why go out when you could stay at home and watch Robert Duvall and Jill St. John in Fame is the Name of the Game, the 1966 NBC ratings winner that told the ripped-from-the-headlines story of a cop investigating the murder of a well-connected prostitute?

In the ’70s and ’80s, made-for-TV movies entered what many saw as their golden age, with every imaginable social issue being addressed, from lesbian parenting (A Question of Love, 1978, in which Gena Rowlands plays a gay woman battling for custody of her children), wife battery (The Burning Bed, 1984, in which Farrah Fawcett doused her abusive husband with
gasoline and set him alight), and abortion (Roe vs. Wade, 1989, in which Holly Hunter played the woman who successfully fought for a woman’s right to choose at the US Supreme Court), among many others.

It has taken Canada a while to catch up. In fact, after the Jim Keegstra scandal had ignited hundreds of headlines in the ’80s, Canadian critics were quick to note that the story of a woman facing anger from people in her small town after exposing a popular teacher as a Holocaust denier was begging for the made-for-TV treatment. But why was it that the two 1988 made-for-TV movies inspired by the tale–Evil in Clear River, starring former Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner, and Scandal in a Small Town, starring Raquel Welch (!)– were created by US networks?

Canada catches up

Suffice it to say, we have caught up, and with a vengeance. In 1992, director John Smith and screenwriter Sam Grana set what many consider to be a new standard for made-for-TV drama with The Boys of St. Vincent, based on the true stories of children who were sexually abused in a Newfoundland orphanage. And the Canadian networks now work to sate audience interest in MOWs–each season, CTV and CBC offer up a broad range of made-for-TV movies and miniseries, programs almost always based on true stories involving social issues or famous, iconic Canadians.

According to Suzette Couture, a seasoned vet of the made-for-TV MOW, the projects are alluring to screenwriters precisely because “there’s a reward system in place. Sure, feature film writing is, in many respects, an ideal. But feature film funding is so much more difficult. You actually see these MOWs and miniseries getting made. Within a year or two, you can often see your project get turned into a televised show.”

Couture would know, having penned famous MOWs on both sides of the border, from Million Dollar Babies (1994), about the Dionne Quintuplets, to Martha Inc.: The Story of Martha Stewart (2003), Choice: The Henry Morgentaler Story (2003) and last year’s The Man Who Lost Himself, about Terry Evanshen, the CFL star who strives to recover his memory after awakening from a coma.

Couture reports that writing MOWs and the like can be a real pleasure–when the team’s right. Though the writer’s work is commented upon continually from stage one, she says they are often shut out of the later editing process–something she sees, not surprisingly, as a big
mistake. “Everyone gets to comment on your script along the way, but then you’re not allowed to comment later? I really found [Million Dollar Babies director] Christian Duguay to be great that way. He sent me all of the edits as he went along for that film. And I sent him some notes back. I said, ‘We really need to feel for these parents. Right now they are too distant. We have to really care about them.’ He said, ‘You’re absolutely right.’ He went back and reworked it, and I think it made the film much better. He understood that the writer could have very important input into the movie. Not everyone always feels that way.”

Couture’s solution? “I got into producing my projects as well.”

Research and more research

If a writer is basing their script on another source, then much of the research is done, but many MOWs and miniseries are based on original scripts, and those require exhaustive inquiry. Bruce Smith, the screenwriter behind CBC’s The Tommy Douglas Story (which aired in March), confirms that the process can be arduous. Delving into the life of such a beloved Canadian icon–the father of universal healthcare–meant striving to be as meticulous as humanly possible. “For over a year you look into every aspect of that person’s life,” says Smith. “Once you’re as informed as you can possibly be, you step back and see the movie. Why cast actors? What’s the story you can tell that goes beyond a documentary? There’s such an amazing personal story behind Tommy Douglas. You load up your brain with facts before sitting down to write. You do have a responsibility–it’s a true story. But there’s the truth, and then there are the facts. Hopefully, you can tell the truth while playing with the details a bit, for dramatic purposes.”

Smith confirms that there is a lot of feedback and revision while making a made-for-TV movie or miniseries. “It depends on the producers and broadcasters, but they are a major giver of notes, and you have to deal with them. I’m lucky–I tend to deal with very good producers. The notes are generally pretty good and mainly I have positive experiences. I’m not a novelist, I’m not working on my own. Film and TV are collaborative processes. Frankly, if the ideas are good–whether they come from a producer or someone working in the costume department–I don’t care where they come from.”

Beaking the MOW mould

All of the writers interviewed for this piece identified one key issue surrounding MOWs. MOW writers are still haunted by their American roots, and are often dragged down by a maudlin tone, simplistic, formulaic storylines and, when they are biographies, a tendency towards hagiography–a biography that idealizes or idolizes the subject.

Shelley Eriksen, the screenwriter who penned last year’s hit Shania (based on the life of pop/country superstar Shania Twain), says that too often “there are certain truths the network doesn’t want you to touch. Miniseries tend to be a bit different, because they’re longer, but if you’re dealing with a MOW, you’re going to have to make certain key choices, because you’ve only got 90 minutes or so. I often get the sense that broadcasters want more heart-warming moments in your script, more spots for them to stick the violins in. As a writer, you’re going to have to sell your hero. The CTV stream for MOWs is actually called ‘Heroes and Villains’. That’s what it’s called. There isn’t room for someone who doesn’t fall into those two categories. A lot of times, I get the sense the broadcasters don’t want to see someone who’s complicated. I don’t get it. But I don’t watch MOWs.”

For Malcolm MacRury, who co-wrote the CBC’s Canada Russia 1972 with Barrie Dunn, breaking the mould was a big part of the goal behind the ambitious miniseries, which revisits that legendary hockey moment from the early ’70s. “The trick is to tell a true story in a dramatically interesting way. That means having some fictional breathing room, which can be hard to get. We chose to shoot the entire project as a faux documentary. We based our style on the way in which Bloody Sunday [Paul Greengrass’s mockumentary about the 1972 massacre of Irish protestors by British troops] was filmed. That was our model. The documentary camera can give the sense of being right in the centre of the action. In a sense, this turned the project into a war movie. We really wanted to avoid doing a Hollywood or Disney version. We were all in agreement–we didn’t want to make it too glowing. We were going to show pimples and all.”

And MacRury acknowledges that many of those nasty things people say about MOWs are true. “They are my least favourite kind of writing. With a series, you can delve into characters. With a feature film, you have the audience’s undivided attention. MOWs do tend to be a bit middle-of-the-road, and try to be inoffensive. The faux documentary form meant we could avoid a lot of long emotional scenes, which are a staple of MOWs. We really tried to be different, both from a standard MOW and a rah-rah sports movie.”

MacRury says that he and Dunn received very little interference from the network on Canada Russia 1972. “We were all in agreement on the kind of project we had envisioned,” he reports. “I’m very proud and happy with the result.”

But MacRury is quick to add that there was an extensive lawyering process involved with the writing of the project. “To get this together, every single player on Canada’s team had to sign off their rights. If even one of the 30 had said no, it would have meant the end of it. Ken Dryden was the last to sign at the last minute. With that kind of pressure, it meant we weren’t always able to go out on a limb. There are places I would have pushed the boundaries a bit further.”

For example? “Phil Esposito was having sex in his hotel room hours before the first game. That’s why he was tired during the match, and he explains that in his book [Thunder and Lightning: a no-B.S. Hockey Memoir, 2004]. So he even says it in his own memoir, but they removed that. I think many of the players, now being married and older, didn’t really like the idea of a lot of the sexual stuff getting discussed.”

Couture agrees, saying the legal complications surrounding MOW writing have become much more extreme in the past decade. “When I was first starting out, with Love and Hate: The Story of Colin and Joanne Thatcher [1989], that was a film about a politician who had his wife murdered. But back then it seemed a pretty casual process–we had one lawyer who looked things over. I was basing the screenplay on Maggie Siggins’ extremely well-researched book. Today, even with an extremely thoroughly researched script, you’re going to be lawyered extensively.”

Didn’t writing the Martha Stewart movie give Couture pause, given the homemaker queen’s multi-millionaire deep pockets? “That was a very tongue-in-cheek MOW, and what’s more, she’s a very public figure. People who have a high profile of that level are seen as people who have less of a right to a private life. With people who are less well known, you have to have their approval.”

Couture says this can sometimes become “a nightmare. All of the actions and dialogue in a script have to be able to be supported. Everyone has to sign off, including the murderer. I’m kidding, but at times it feels that bad.”

Smith says even when dealing with someone who has passed away, like Tommy Douglas, the lawyers are firmly in place. “The only skeletons we could find in his closet were that he was a serious workaholic and an idealist. That doesn’t seem very harsh to me.” But, Smith reports, that still meant that Douglas’s daughter, thespian Shirley Douglas, disassociated herself from The Tommy Douglas Story. “It was really too bad, because for the first year I met with her and we talked about it,” says Smith. “My first obligation has to be to the audience. Shirley wasn’t happy with the movie–I think she was fine with much of it, but just didn’t like us getting into who the private man was.”

Getting in the game

For writers wanting to get into the MOW game, experienced screenwriters have a word of warning: expect to be replaced. Couture confirms that often times the writer who begins the project is let go half way through the process, with a new one brought in to complete the job. “When I started, 15 years ago, there seemed to be much more of a commitment to staying with the same writer. But now, I think there’s a greater tendency, both in the US and Canada, to hire new writers half way through. When the networks like a project, they’re more likely to abandon a writer before they abandon the project. I’m not going to name them, but at one point I was producing and the network wanted the writer fired. I knew he was capable and very good, so I stuck up for him and kept him on. Sometimes it’s not about the writer, it’s about how the communication is being handled.”

Says Eriksen, “I’ve been fired from projects in the past, and I’ve also been brought in to replace people. Of course, they don’t call it firing, they just say the writer can’t take it to the next level. I became the Cassandra of all my friends, because one of them would get a gig writing a MOW and I’d say, ‘Great news! You’re going to get fired!’ Sure enough, six months later I’d get an email from them saying that I was right and that they’d been fired. The job of the first writer is to help the producers figure out what film they want to make, and then to help them get funding. Then they turn around and tell the writer that they’re struggling.”

For every rule, of course, there is an exception. Two years ago, Russ Cochrane approached CTV with the idea of an MOW based on the issue of road rage. Though inspired by various headlines and a social issue, there were no lawyers needed as it was fictionalized, unlike most MOWs. And Cochrane was kept on board, from conception through to the shoot. The result is Last Exit, which will air on CTV in the spring or summer.

“I was very lucky, because a director was brought on, John Fawcett, who I really agreed with. We shared a vision for how the film should turn out. It was a complicated script, because you have three different storylines happening in two different times. From the start, I said that doing a MOW often means having to have a happy ending, and I really didn’t want that. How can you do a film about road rage with a happy ending? We had to agree that it was going to be dark. It is a somewhat redemptive ending, but it’s not a happy one.”

And while there was a great deal of rewriting to be done, Cochrane says that was for location-change reasons, not due to network notes. “Sometimes it was a simple matter of budget–we can’t shoot here any more, so we have to rework this scene. The urgency of writing in a hurry gave the script that added sense of urgency, and we were looking for that anyway.”

And Cochrane’s overall MOW experience? “I think many have this impression of MOWs that are left over from the American ones from the ’70s. They were often slow-moving, morose, often about a disease of the week. They really don’t have to be that way. I really enjoyed doing Last Exit. I’d be happy to write another.”

 


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NOVEMBER 29, 2018
  • Writers Talking TV

NOVEMBER 29, 2018

Writers Talking TV

Writers Talking TV, presented by the Writers Guild of Canada, is a writer-to-writer interview held at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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