Case #15: Joel Metzger

Joel MetzgerInterview by Juliana Weiss for PinkRayGun.com

Pink Raygun is a parent!

We’ve adopted our first writer through “Adopt a Writer,” a program organized by entertainment bloggers in support of the WGA during the recent strike. Although the strike ended less than a month after the project began, “Adopt a Writer” lives on, and Pink Raygun was lucky enough to be able to adopt Joel Metzger, a writer whose credits include many geek favorites: Andromeda, Sliders, The Pretender, The Outer Limits, Cleopatra 2525, and Earth: Final Conflict.

In this interview, Metzger shares with us Hollywood horror stories, insight into his new podcast series in development, an episode of Xena that could have been, and a hilarious anecdote involving Leonard Nimoy. Intrigued? Read on…

How did you become a TV writer?

I slept my way to the top—only to realize I wasn’t in the entertainment industry at all, I was in the senior healthcare industry, and man, that was a rude awakening. No, I worked as a script coordinator for years on a slew of different television shows. Well, “slew,” I don’t how much a slew is, but maybe a dozen-fifteen shows and pilots and features at just about every major studio and network. Usually for nightmare bosses, but sometimes for nice ones. Then through a friend I got to pitch to The Outer Limits, and I sold the story. That was to Mark Stern, who now runs the sci-fi channel. They shot the episode in Canada, and it starred Ryan Phillippe. Then for the next few years while I was still an assistant, I managed to sell an episode of this show or that, always in the sci-fi vein. Becoming “Sci-Fi” wasn’t by design—once you get credits in a certain genre, then you tend to get pitches and meetings within that genre, and the next thing you know you’re a “sci-fi guy.” I guess that’s better than “QVC guy.”

Why television rather than features?

I came out to Hollywood to write features, but I started working as an assistant on TV shows, so my contacts in TV grew, while my contacts in features remained nil (as they do to this day). I also got more interested in TV as the quality went up over the years. Not across the board, of course, but I’d say the upper echelon of TV shows has better writing than most studio releases. There used to be a great divide between TV and Movies as far as Hollywood’s own caste system/hierarchy, but I think that’s over now. And with the internet coming into its own, I think soon people will just say “content is content.”

At what point in your career did you feel like you had “made it” as a television writer?

You get this rush of accomplishment when you sell your first pitch, shoot your first episode, or get your first staff job… you always feel like “whew, made it! Everything will be easier now!” But of course you never really “make it,” because the business is so unstable and unpredictable. Even popular showrunners can sit out one season and have a hard time breaking back in. So you have to hold on to the little moments of victory as best you can.

Personally, my best little arm-pump moment was when I was on the set for a show called Sliders. They were shooting my episode on the Universal backlot , somewhere off the “town square” area seen in Back to the Future. I’m watching them shoot when here comes the Universal tour tram, which slows down so the tourists can snap pictures—and my mind flashed back to when I was 13-14 years old sitting on that very same Universal tram—just a tourist from the Midwest—and now these people are looking at my film set. That was an incredible moment.

Of course by “very same tram” I mean a similar one, not the exact same tram. I’m sure they rotate out the old trams due to maintenance, wear and tear, etc.

Do you have any horror stories or funny anecdotes you can share about working in the entertainment industry?

The funny anecdotes are the horror stories. I used to work for a screamer that ran an entire girl’s softball league. When I say he “ran” the league I mean he went to the games and foisted off all other duties on me. And I’ve had more than my share of driving the boss to the airport on the shoulder of the 405 because we’re late. I had a boss whose wife habitually locked herself out of the house, making me run across town to let her in. I’ve had bosses throw chairs in frustration over various/typical studio backstabbings. Hey, if you’re Bobby Knight you can throw a chair, but this is just a crappy show, you know?

One time we were doing re-shoots on a pilot, which was very tense because we were over budget and “on the bubble.” And I’m walking around the set and I accidentally step on an audio cable with one foot and just by walking yank the cable out of its plug with my other foot. No one saw this and I was terrified of getting caught because, like I said, over budget and on the bubble. So I only had a second to scan the back of the audio doohicky and pick a place to plug the cable back in. Next day, when the shoot was over, I hear my boss screaming on the phone: “What?! What?! No sound?!”

And I also had a pitch so bad when it was done the guy just looked at me with a face of stone, stood up, put his glasses on, left the room without a word, get in his car, and go home.

What would you say to a young writer about to pitch for the first time?

Have an actor friend, someone who is much more outgoing and better looking than you, go in and pitch in your stead. Barring that, you have to prepare. Do as much research on the company and people you’ll be meeting as possible. What is the company structure, what kinds of projects do they do, what are their needs, who might they know that you know, what school did they attend, etc. Remember, whatever the company does, you love it. If you’re pitching episodes to a show, you have to know that show backwards. Give them the logline right out of the gate, and give them a chance early into each idea for them to stop you and say “we already tried that.” They’re thinking in terms of thumbnails, premises, so you don’t want to waste their time trying to figure if this is an idea they already tried. When they shoot an idea down, just move right into the next one, don’t let it phase you for a second. However, don’t go in there with too much — these guys live in fear of “the binder.” That’s the guy who comes in with a binder and pitches everything he’s ever thought of since the crib. Keep it moving and don’t overwhelm with detail. Have your pitches memorized, but memorize them in a conversational style. You know that one funny story you’ve told a million times at parties? It should roll off the tongue like that. If you’re pitching to a firing squad, keep directing your pitch from one to the other, but try to figure out who the head guy is—let him know in your delivery that you know he’s the head guy. You’ll either be in a conference room or you’ll be in somebody’s office—if it’s somebody’s office you can comment on some knickknack that obviously has some meaning to them or they wouldn’t display it in their office. There’s always the “chitchat” up front—weather, news, who you know that they know… saying something that’s actually funny as you sit down might loosen them up. When the chit-chat is over they’ll shift in their seat and say something like “so what do you have today?” Don’t let the energy dip at that point, the energy has to go up—you’re excited about what you’re bringing in. If you’ve prepared fully, you shouldn’t get lost, but even so, I recommend having cheat notes or even the whole pitch typed out in your hand. Just for a security blanket. They really don’t care if you get lost, it happens all the time. Don’t sit back in a big soft couch and disappear, sit up on the edge and shoot right at them. Different people take pitches in different ways—they might get really somber and take notes, they might do a fake smile and nod at everything you say, they might stare out the window so they can visualize what you’re saying—just keep going, don’t let their body language derail you.

What project are you most proud of and why?

I’m most proud of my pilot, Hothouse Bruiser, which was the top drama chosen out of 500 entries in the Slamdance Teleplay Contest. It was a blind read—no names, no agents, no credits, no inside track—just words on the page. I was very proud when that script rose up the stack to stand out among so many good writers.

What was the most challenging episode to write (from any of the shows on which you’ve worked) and how did you overcome that challenge?

Every show throws out at least one script or outline every season. All the writers attack it from every angle, but for whatever reason, they can’t make it work. The only time that happened to me was on Xena, Warrior Princess, where we tried to do a “Prehistoric” episode. It all started because wardrobe had these leopard-skin bikinis and we were trying to think of a way to get Lucy and Renee into them. So we started talking cavemen and dinosaurs, but of course dinosaurs tend to be expensive, so I said maybe we could do it the old school way from the 50’s where they would shoot extreme close-ups of iguanas in slo-mo and process that behind the actors. We were going to do it fun and cheesy with big hair like an old 50’s B-movie. But draft after draft it got farther away from that, and I really killed myself trying to sculpt it into something before we finally threw in the towel. Lesson was: don’t try to write a script based on two pieces of available wardrobe.

Are there any episode ideas floating around in your head from shows you previously worked on that you really wish you could write? Could you share with our readers?

I’d say it’s pretty rare for TV writers to have “I wish we’d have done that” ideas left over because it’s so difficult to think of anything that hasn’t been done a million times already that if you are lucky enough to get on a show and you pitch a fresh idea, chances are good they’ll do it. That said, there was an episode that I wish we had done on Xena we were trying to think of a “bottle show” (a show with only one or two locations so you can bring it in way under the usual budget) and I pitched a story inside the “Minotaur’s Maze.” Okay, I didn’t have a story per se, but I had the production idea that you could have the set designers build a few twists and turns of a maze, and we could march the characters round and round the same hallways, dressing the walls a little differently, but making it seem like a never-ending maze. You could shoot the whole thing for a fraction of the cost of a normal episode, because it was all on a stage. The idea never flew in the room. I guess I’ll have to add it to the gigantic binder I use to frighten development execs.

Many of your credits are in the sci-fi genre. How have you seen that genre change since you first started writing for television? Do you consider those changes to be positive or negative?

I think genre content on television has become more accepted by the studios since I first started. When I started, most of the sci-fi content was on cable or syndication. Then when Lost hit it big, suddenly the networks wanted on that train, so you saw a glut of Sci-Fi pilots the next year. All those shows died early as I recall.

I also think the content has gotten a little more sophisticated in the last few years. When Xena and Hercules were raking in the syndicated dollars, they spawned a lot of copy cats that were really lacking in value. I think everyone takes genre content a little more seriously now, from an executive salability viewpoint and from a quality of product viewpoint.

How do you think the industry will be altered by the strike? How will the new pilot development system affect writers? The quality of television?

Did you know “Broadcasting” was originally an agricultural term? The “casting” of seeds over a wide area. There’s a manure joke in there somewhere but it’s not forthcoming. In any event, I think the Networks are talking quite a bit about belt-tightening, and we may see some in the short term—but the strike itself won’t change the development cycle as much as the changing economics that helped cause the strike in the first place. The thing is, the TV development system is highly wasteful, with lots of product being written and shot that never sees the air. Guess what, all that waste is exactly what keeps all the agents, executives, and muffin basket delivery people employed in this town. We all live off of the “waste” (when we’re lucky enough to find employment). Lots of major industries have this kind of model—i.e. bigpharma and aerospace—funding projects that never see fruition.

As far as the quality of television, I think there will always be a handful of great shows floating in a sea of crap. That’s my own subjectivity, but I think just very hard to do good show and very hard for it to find an audience to sustain it.

Have you had the opportunity to work with a writer, actor, director or other artist that you particularly admired or were a fan of from afar? Can you share your “fanboy” experience with us?

My inner geek came out when I was an assistant on this short-lived show called Deadly Games. My first day on the job, I had to bring lunch in to Leonard Nimoy, who was one of the producers. He invited me to sit down and suddenly it was just me and Spock eating Chinese food out of cartons. That was cool. Later in the season I was hunched over my computer and he walked up behind me to see how the work was coming and he put a hand on my shoulder. I thought it would be funny if I keeled over as if from a Vulcan nerve pinch, and I almost cracked my head on my desk.

What can you tell us about the audio podcast series that you are developing?

I’m very excited about this. I’m taking the aforementioned “Hothouse Bruiser” pilot script, and I’m expanding it into a ten-part audio podcast. That’s right, audio: you’ll have to use your imagination, which, turns out, is kinda fun. And somewhat cheaper than financing a TV show out of your own pocket. It will be ten half-hour episodes, each with a cliff-hanger into the next episode. I’m going to put the whole season up at once on RSS and iTunes. You can listen in the car, the bus, on the treadmill, in the back of Social Studies, whatever. It’s been a real challenge writing for an audio-only medium, but I’ve found it fascinating. It can be a very powerful medium with a lot of freedom. Is it in the budget to have a dozen elephants trapped on the top of a burning skyscraper? Sure, no problem, it’s audio. I love listening to podcasts but I haven’t come across a lot of story content—I want to fill that vacuum with really suspenseful, sexy, surprising, edgy stuff.

Who would win in a fight?
A) Xena
B) Buffy
C) Draw

Xena would probably win, but Buffy would have more and funnier sarcastic comments between kicks and punches.

 For more interviews with the women (and men) who make genre film and television awesome: writers, costume designers, hair and make-up artists, and special effects crew, go to Pinkraygun.com.

Case #5: Eric Estrin

Interview by Fergus and Marcia for Pop Vultures
 

Eric Estrin at his computer Eric Estrin is a long-time member of the WGA, with television credits going back over twenty years. He has written for such diverse shows as Miami Vice, Murder, She Wrote and The Outer Limits and also served as writer/producer on V.I.P.

Fergus and Marcia from Pop Vultures had a chance to ask him about the Writers’ Guild strike, and why it had to happen.

Can you tell how you came to writing, and how you got your break?
I studied journalism in college and was covering the entertainment industry freelance for a variety of newspapers and magazines. I was also the TV critic for Los Angeles magazine. After a couple of years of this, I decided to quit criticizing and start doing. Miami Vice was the hot new show at the time, and I was from Miami, had covered Miami as a journalist, and had a bunch of story ideas that went beyond the usual for that show. I teamed up with a partner, wrote a spec episode, and showed it to everyone we knew through our years of being around the business. We got an assignment for a show that never made it onto the air, but through that experience we joined the Writers Guild, found an agent and were soon invited into Miami Vice, where we wrote an episode.

How easy has it been to pick and choose your work?
In the beginning it was easier for me to work only for shows that I targeted. I was new in the business, and everyone who breaks in gets the benefit of the doubt as the possible “next big thing.” After a while you tend to get pigeonholed in a certain genre, but I always resisted that and tried to write for a variety of different one-hour dramas. My former partner (Michael Berlin) and I also had a budding movie career going, but it was torpedoed by the writers’ strike of 1988. After that we sort of struggled to get back into TV and had more trouble controlling our career paths, as we were no longer the flavor of the month, and new writers came along with more momentum. But I’m happy to look back at my success in a variety of genres — cop shows, women-oriented drama, fantasy and supernatural, and comedy-action. It reassures me that I’m always only a spec script away from taking any new path I want.

What’s the current WGA dispute about?
Mainly new media. The industry is undergoing a sea change now in terms of content delivery. When I broke in, most TV writing was done for three broadcast networks. Then four, five and six. Meanwhile cable boomed to the point where it has partially eclipsed broadcast as a source of quality scripted programming. Now content is moving to the Internet, to computers, cell phones and PDAs. The Writers Guild wants to make sure that those who create material for these new delivery systems are compensated fairly. And that when our material is re-used in these new media, we are paid fairly for that too.

Producers willing to finance a writer’s vision and bring it to life take a financial risk and they’re rewarded if the show becomes a hit. Writers also take a risk. We invest our time, our creativity and our very selves into making a script worthwhile. If a production company is able to reap benefits from that beyond the initial airing that we’re paid for, we deserve a small percentage of that too. What we’re asking for does not greatly impact the companies, but it makes a huge difference to the artists who create the product from nothing. This is the way book authors and playwrights are compensated too.

What’s to stop TV and film companies from hiring ‘scab’ writers, or writers from overseas?
Well, it’s not so easy to find scab writers who can deliver quality material in a professional way. It’s possible, but it’s a huge gamble for companies that are spending large sums of money on very tight production schedules and that are used to depending on not just one writer, but usually a team of quality writers to deliver what they need when they need it. On top of that, most writers with any talent want to be in the WGA so they can get treated fairly and receive decent benefits. They know that scabbing will greatly jeopardize that possibility. And also, most writers are by nature empathetic and sensitive to others’ situations, and they realize that scabbing hurts all writers and is wrong and unfair. The companies realize that too and they’ll all want to be in business with us again when the strike is over.

The strike has already halted many film and TV productions. Does the WGA have the full support of other workers in the industry?
We have a lot of support. “Full support” might be overstating it, because people are hurting financially and some of them are unable to see beyond their immediate pain. But I’ve been very encouraged by the strong support we’ve gotten from within our guild, from our colleagues in the Screen Actors Guild and the Director’s Guild of America, from those who work below the line and from the general public. All of us are suffering, and almost all of us realize the necessity of the strike as long as the companies resist treating us fairly.

How do you think the industry will be changed by this strike?
It’s already changing in a number of ways. On the TV side, which is what I’m most familiar with, you see the broadcast networks cutting costs by relying more on reality-type shows. This makes the networks less distinguishable from cable and Internet outlets, so viewers are migrating away from broadcast. The numbers show this has been happening since before the strike, and now it’s happening faster. When the strike is settled, most of the nets will invest heavily to get those viewers back, but one or two may decide to go the cheap route and settle for a smaller, less desirable (to advertisers) audience. That will create openings for the cable networks and the Internet to step in and take that audience away. At the same time, writers are realizing that we no longer need to work within the network system to get our ideas to the screen. Video cameras and editing programs are fairly inexpensive now, and anyone can post anything on the Internet. In the last couple of years, and especially since the strike, we’ve seen a huge jump in the quality of Internet programming. That’s going to continue, as writers disgusted with the current system learn that by becoming producers they can control and own their own material. That’s huge for writers. And technologically, things are changing so fast that it’s possible the networks won’t be viable at all in a few years. Content may be delivered to computers hooked up to big screens.

Have you spent much time on the picket line?
I live in Ventura County, about 30 miles from the nearest picket line, but I try to get out there a couple of times a week if I can. The mood on the line has been very positive throughout the strike. We can feel the support not only within the Guild but from the community as well. Most days we have actors marching with us, and it’s not unusual for below-the-line workers and even fans join our pickets. People donate food and drinks, and passing drivers honk their horns to let us know they’re behind us. It’s really different from our 1988 strike, where picketing was a lower key activity and whatever community support we had was much quieter. The result is greater attendance and greater resolve from within our ranks.

How else is this strike different from the 1988 one?
Obviously, we were much better prepared this time. The Guild brought in a longtime union organizer, David Young, to be our executive director a year before our strike vote. Young had little or no experience in the entertainment industry, and we took a lot of heat for going with “an outsider.” In the early days of the strike, the companies’ main thrust was that our leadership didn’t understand how business was done in Hollywood. This was widely reported as fact in the trades and the mainstream press. Actually, we did understand the traditional way of doing business, and we didn’t like it. So we turned it upside down, which really pissed a lot of people off. We struck sooner than we were expected to, not giving the companies a chance to stockpile scripts, and we’ve had strike teams working behind the scenes on a variety of creative strategies, including inter-guild outreach to SAG and DGA, location pickets and morale-boosting theme pickets. The other major difference from 1988 was that the companies, which control the media, controlled the coverage last time. This time, we’ve gotten our message out very well over the Internet, and we can really feel the difference in terms of national and international support. So that also helps morale, which is important when you’re involved in a long strike.

Any response to those that think the writers are just being greedy?
Obviously, they don’t understand the issues and in most cases don’t care to. There’s a percentage of writers whose work has made them wealthy and a larger percentage who struggle with varying degrees of success to get by in a very expensive city. The irony is, the extremely wealthy ones don’t need to strike at all; they’re doing it for the rest of us and for the writers who’ll come after us, just as those in previous generations fought to make conditions better for me and my peers.

So what are you currently working on?
Glad you asked, because I’m kicking off a project this week. It’s called the LAObserved ScriptProject. I’ve written the first four pages of an LA-based, political suspense thriller, and I’m asking readers to submit the next 1-5 pages each week. I’ll judge the entries and pick one submission weekly to carry the script forward. We’ll do this for six or eight months until the script is finished, with everyone whose pages are chosen getting a t-shirt and a chance to compete for a grand prize. I hope to get the first pages posted in the next few days.

As for actual, money-making, WGA-covered projects, I was getting this script project together when the strike started, so I have no assignments lined up. I have a couple of spec things, though — a TV pilot and a feature script — that I hope will lead to work when the strike is over.

Thanks to Eric for taking the time to answer our questions. And definitely check out the LAObserved ScriptProject — it’s sure to produce some interesting writing!