Archive for January, 2014


Saying goodbye to Sportacus

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It’s the end of an era. Magnus Scheving has announced he will no longer portray Sportacus, the heroic character he created many years ago. LazyTown will continue, and another actor will step into the role. But for multitudes of fans, Magnus will always remain the definitive realization of the blue-suited hero.

As Head Writer for LazyTown, I’ve spent hundreds of hours with Magnus, brainstorming, revising, tweaking – endlessly manipulating story and dialogue in order to create a blueprint for our technically complex production. We have worked around the clock – in offices, at his home, in cars, on planes, and in many countries.

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Magnus insisted on change after change, never settling for what he felt was only good – he wanted great. That didn’t mean we agreed on everything. But at the end of the day, he was the man who had to carry the larger burden of transforming the script into a television show. There were so many moving parts involved, and his responsibilities didn’t end on the last page of the scripts, as mine did.

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One of the more impressive things I witnessed was in watching Magnus give epic recaps of our long story sessions. We would work on script beats for three, four, even five hours. Mind numb, brain exhausted, all I wanted to do was go listen to music or otherwise clear my head.

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But Magnus would say, “Okay, let’s go through it again.” And he would launch into a microscopic breakdown of every single detail – even elements that were only mentioned casually or tossed around as asides. What I wrote down to remember, he kept in his head. And he did this for dozens of scripts simultaneously. It wasn’t unusual for him to bring up an element of a script six months later, that had been considered but rejected at the time. He was able to keep that detail in his data base for future reference – after I had long since deleted it from mine.

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Another important skill he possesses is an ability to maintain a constant connection to the big picture. By that, I mean as the creator of LazyTown, Magnus had plans in mind for live shows, movies, props – even theme parks – that our script writing needed to support. If we threw around an idea about a new gadget, he considered its use in the context of what our needs might be, brand-wise, three years down the road.

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Sportacus is a superhero and thus, a man of action and not necessarily words. The last thing a superhero needs to do is talk endlessly about what he’s going to do. He simply needs to do it. So his character wasn’t always given the most interesting lines of dialogue. Still, a quick review of past episodes will demonstrate that Magnus always instilled his on-camera time with energy, superhero savvy, and kid-relatable wisdom.

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The most challenging aspect of writing for Sportacus was in coming up with the opening sequence of the show – Sportacus alone in his airship. There, he would go about his home life, preparing food, cleaning out his sports closet, etc. But our mandate was to create mini-stories that would show how inventive and sports-related his actions were. So we would turn a Christmas tree decoration into a manic gymnastic display. Making fruit salad became a master class in juggling and vaulting.

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For every story idea that eventually became an episode, we pitched dozens that were rejected. Some of them even made their way to script stage but for one reason or another, they were deemed unworkable. And some scripts needed dozens of rewrites – the most being 47 drafts (I won’t mention which show required that many revisions). We created tales of dragons, moon landings, snow monsters and birthday parties. Sportacus has been made invisible, sent into sugar meltdowns, trapped in a trash compactor, and he has come face to face with a menacing robot. In bringing these stories to life, Magnus has done thousands upon thousands of jumps, spins, kicks, flips – and he has done his “signature” Sportacus move uncountable times.

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So while he will no longer wear the costume of Sportacus, Magnus’ time as the blue elf will endure. The other Sportacii that will take on the role will be amazing and entertaining, no doubt. They will each bring something unique to the character, and will find a way to make it theirs. LazyTown will continue, in one form or another, for a long time.

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But there’s only one first of anything. In creating and defining the role of Sportacus, Magnus Scheving has given kids around the world a role model for good health and fair play. His efforts will resonate for years to come – wherever there are kids who love to laugh and play, along with a slightly above-average superhero.

 

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Jan Fleming is a seasoned executive creative director, producer and brand builder who works in diverse media for some of the world’s most influential entertainment companies and lifestyle brands. Her clients include Sundance, The Walt Disney Company, Nickelodeon, Live Earth, Transworld Media and the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. Jan works in film, television, advertising, marketing, web/digital, publishing and consumer products.

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Notably, Jan served as VP/chief creative officer for Robert Redford, developing, designing and producing media and branding for many of the Sundance entities, including Sundance Film Festival, Sundance Institute, Sundance Channel and Film Series, Sundance Resort and Farms, Sundance Cinemas and Sundance Catalog.

As an executive at The Walt Disney Company, Jan led creative development for a major educational initiative, participated in the development of a learning channel for Disney ABC Networks, directed architectural/interior design and programming for Disney’s premiere regional entertainment initiative and collaborated with Walt Disney Imagineering on several innovative projects.

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Jan began in television, at Children’s Television Workshop in New York. She went on to create and produce a preschool series for Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr., serve as head of creative/content for Sundance Channel and participate in the development of LazyTown, the Nickelodeon/Sprout series and lifestyle brand focused on health/fitness for kids. She is currently in development on a series with MTV/Fox Digital.

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What in your background/education/life experience prepared you to do the work you are doing now?

“Growing up in a small town. Traveling out and away from that small town. A deep understanding and questioning of religion. Working from a young age. Working. Working. Working. Doing it.

Small town life can be very narrow-minded. There’s a lot of insular behavior. I was fortunate that my family was inherently creative and open-minded in ways that were important. My parents were/are both creative, in their own ways. They could just do things. They were artful, but not purposefully. They just were/are. 
 
I was very close to my grandmothers and my great-grandmothers. All these strong women were important in opening up my heart and mind to the world. They were survivors. They had been through depression and war and death of husbands and family, yet they went on and were happy.

My Granny Opal was a born teacher. She taught in a one-room school house in the 40s/early 50s in Northwest Arkansas. She also loved to travel, learn and experience. She took me and my other siblings/cousins with her. But, I think that I traveled with her the most.  She took us to see and experience things around us – naturally beautiful things, history, our roots and museums, theater, art, ballet – things that create imagery and magic in the mind of a child.

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I mention religion, because it definitely played a formative role in my life, and the way I see the world, in many ways. I realized, that when I was introduced to the world of “branding” – maybe during the days of Nick/Disney –  that branding is all about creating religion. The same patterns and methodology existed in what I’d seen growing up and in what “branding experts” were doing.

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Humans can create and direct thinking of other humans by sending and packaging messages. Branding is about creating an image and “systems” that support that image and keep it intact.  Even if the image/system is made to be “unsystem-like” it’s a system. Religions have created and managed image/systems for centuries.

Systems are comforting. Believing in something and it’s way of thinking/system, provides a certain security. Systems help us to make sense of the world. They create values. They have rules. They set boundaries. They are logical. When they are good, they behave as you would expect. They are made to control in ways that are healthy, but can be unhealthy at times – if taken too literally or to extremes. You start to understand that inconsistency within a system of thought and/or deed can destroy any system or way of thinking. The rules then have to be expanded and changed and manipulated to reframe the image/system. When a brand/religion doesn’t walk the talk, then you have issues..

Religion also taught me that it’s healthy to question everything. Question why you believe what you believe, and who you believe. Question the strength, validity and consistency of any brand or system. I did, from a very early age.  It can be disconcerting to question what is human-made, but also freeing.”
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 In creating Allegra’s Window, what were your chief concerns, stylistically? And how did those meld with your intentions for the viewers?

“Allegra was born out of opportunity. Nick Jr was just beginning and they were looking for a music series. I was head of development for Jumbo Pictures at the time. Such a youngster, doing all kinds of stuff. Jumbo had a relationship with Nickelodeon, because we made DOUG for NickToons.

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John Hoffman. a producer I’d met working on a series for HBO/Children’s Television Workshop (Encyclopedia), came to me at Jumbo and said, let’s develop something. We started working on ideas together and Allegra was the result.”

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“Originally, we liked the idea of using puppets and also having a live characters, so that they could sing. I had gotten to know Marty Robinson, originally because of Sesame Street, but also because he had a workshop/loft near the Jumbo offices, which I’d visited.  He is an amazing puppeteer and it’s hard not to want to incorporate that magic, once you’ve been introduced to it. As the lead puppeteer on Allegra, Marty brought us the best of the best. The puppeteering team on the series was top-notch amazing. All those folks are A-list: Kathy Mullen, Anthony Asbury, Pam Arciero, Tim LaGasse, Heather Asche…Isabel!”

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“We believed – and I still do believe – that puppets, used in artful ways, would add a certain warmth to the effort. Now that you can do so much with animation, it’s changed the game. Everyone want to use animation, and it’s beautiful. But, I still think that there is something new and fresh to do with puppets. Puppets rule.”  

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What kinds of considerations do you bring to a project when thinking about an intended audience? Do you want kids to see things in a new way? Think outside the box? Or is it more about pure entertainment?

“Looking back, I think of Allegra as very rudimentary, in many ways, an experiment, really.  Nick Jr was doing a lot of experimenting then.  As we were making the series, they were doing quite a bit of research on preschool viewing habits. They were thinking more and more interactively about tv for preschoolers, so we were playing with that as we got the research – trying to incorporate new thinking and information as we went along.  Obviously, we all wanted the kids to feel an affinity with the main character, Allegra and see the world through her eyes (Allegra’s Window).  It was about helping little kids through little kid things – feeling small, going to daycare for the first time, making friends, learning how to play with others, dealing with siblings, having fun, family – just the normal stuff. ”

If you were creating Allegra’s Window today, what would you do differently?

“A million things!  First, my style/tastes have changed DRASTICALLY. I’ve grown as a creative director/designer/thinker. There would be a radical shift in the way things were designed.  The look and feel was way too busy!  Oy. 

Form. I think it would truly be a mixed media series and incorporate more animation and interactivity. The writing was truly great, but I know we could think smarter with another go at it. The music. I would get some of my music industry friends to help and pump that up, make it more energetic and poppy. I just know so much and have had the opportunity to become acquainted with such talented people.  We had amazing artists working with us on the show before. They have all grown way beyond that point in time as well…maybe they’d come back. We’d super team it.
 
There are much cooler, less hand-made ways of incorporating a mix of media now — but I’d still want to keep it warm and tactile and little-kid inclusive. It would be incredible to do it again, knowing what I know now. Really fun.

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As a Creative Director, what do you need to know from a client before you feel ready to plunge in and start working on a project?

“A lot of things, but at the heart of it is, what is it that they really want? Finding that out takes time. Listening. I have become a good listener. Sometimes I have to listen and look for what’s not said overtly.”

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 What brands are effective re: kids?

 “Kids. Hmmm.  Apple. iPhone, iPad — all the smart phone/tech brands are doing pretty well.”

Sundance has become a gargantuan brand – how did you go about creating themes that would emerge through the clutter of hundreds of screenings and thousands of people?

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“Well, when you say “Sundance,” I assume that you mean Sundance Film Festival. The Sundance brand is something other.  Sundance is a family of related entities or brands: Sundance Film Festival, Sundance Institute, Sundance Channel, Sundance (the place) & Sundance Resort,  Sundance Cinemas, Sundance … etc.

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People should understand that Sundance is a real place.  It’s where everything started. That place is a mountain and canyon (Provo Canyon) that Mr. Redford stumbled upon in the late 50s. He bought 2 acres there in 1961 (for $500) and he preserved more land there over time and as he could. In the late 70s/early 80s, he and some industry colleagues started the Institute. He suggested that they do workshops up there for budding filmmakers, as he had this place and some land. That’s how it all came to be in Utah.
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The Film Festival came a bit later – to support those filmmakers and help to give smaller films a way to show up and possibly get out there. Sundance Film Festival is mainly held in Park City, which 40 miles away from Sundance.

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“I have worked on most all of the Sundance organizations and I worked on the Festival for 10 years. Over time, the Festival has become the best known. It’s the most famous, for many reasons, a combination of what was happening in the world/film industry and what Mr. Redford and others cared about and were doing.

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The Festival is a gigantic event. It’s like the Olympics of Film, so thematic, branded design for this event has to be both beautiful and very functional. When I started working with the Festival, one of the main things that we did was “clean up” the information design and create some clear forms for communicating with Festival audiences. That was done interactively with the Festival/Institute staff to help to not only present solid, well-designed pieces, but to make sure that all media served a purpose.  There is now very little superfluous junk. Everything you see or hear or touch or use works better as a system to help people get excited about, understand and navigate the Festival.  I believed that cleaning it up was very important and that work paid off.

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 Over the years, developing the “themes” to skin that infrastructure of information design became an interesting challenge. At its core, the big idea underlying the Festival/Sundance brand is the same each year. I found that it was about finding a new facet of the big idea and focusing on that.”

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Topping yourself is hard. It was always a process that Mr. Redford had a say in, but he let us fall or fly in the end. 

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I recently went through my attic and looked at the span of the Festival work. There is some smart, beautiful work there, done by amazing designers. The thematic ideas were solid and they carried through. Some of my favorite themes where the most abstract. One year, I had the wild idea of using FIRE. First, I love looking at fire because it can be amazingly beautiful and it’s a part of that landscape and the mountain lifestyle, especially in winter, when the Festival is held.  

I liked that fire was symbolic of many things about Sundance and The Festival:  the incredible passion and drive of the Festival and filmmakers; the elements of heat, danger and risk-taking; the drawing effect that fire has in the cold; and that Sundance is at the iconic, fiery, molten heart and hearth of it all.  

So, for me, seeing FIRE, interpreted in all the ways we could throughout the media and design of that year’s Festival, juxtaposed to the frozen white of that place….well, it just worked. And it popped. The other challenge is that Park City is a cluttered landscape of buildings and signage. Whatever is done there, has to stand out, but also fit in and make sense…so, yeah, good luck with that.”

If there’s a Hollywood creative job that Doug Wood hasn’t done, it’s because that job hasn’t been invented yet. He was born in Chicago, where he acted in productions at The Next Theatre Company, The Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Victory Gardens Theater, The Forum Theatre and The Second City, among others. He formed a comedy duo with Cheryl Rhoads, entitled The Fine Line, playing comedy clubs and theatres in Chicago and later L.A., including The Improv and The Comedy Store. Wood has worked as the creative executive for the Annie Award-winning films The Iron Giant and Cats Don’t Dance. He also served as the creative executive for the Emmy Award-winning TV series Tiny Toon Adventures, and Animaniacs. Wood has created two successful animated television series: Little Einsteins for Disney and Mama Mirabelle’s Home Movies for National Geographic (for which he also authored the children’s book, “When Mama Mirabelle Comes Home). In addition to his work for Disney, he has written television shows for children at Nickelodeon, PBS, Discovery Kids, the BBC, Fremantle Media and more. At the Motion Picture and Television Fund he volunteers his services instructing senior citizens on the craft of Improvisation. In 2011, Wood directed, produced (with Jennifer Clymer), and wrote (with Maureen Kelly) a live-action short, Hi, Lillian, which stars veteran actor, Pat Crawford Brown, an improv student of Wood’s at the MPTV Fund. The film has won the Audience Award for Best Short at three film festivals: Dances With Films 15, Prescott Film Festival, 2012 and the 12th Annual Valley Film Festival. Wood also won an award for Best Emerging Filmmaker at the Prescott Film Festival. Hi, Lillian  is an Official Selection at the AWEsome Film Festival in San Jose, CA, the Reel Recovery Festivals in L.A., NY and American Independent Film Festival and the Legacy Film Festival in San Francisco.

You started out in the theatre, with all of its high highs and low lows – auditioning, finding the heart and soul of a character, receiving audience approval. Eventually you turned toward stage comedy; why did you make that transition and do you think comedy was always a driving force? 

“It wasn’t an intentional choice—it just happened, as is the case with many careers in this strange industry.  I was acting in serious plays in Chicago– I had done a show with Steppenwolf, then got my Equity card when I was cast in the Midwest premiere of The Shadow Box.  When that show closed I formed a comedy duo called The Fine LIne with a woman I had met during my two-year improv program at Second City under the great Josephine Forsberg.

It was something to keep me busy until I got cast in another play.  But after performing in comedy clubs, we started getting gigs in fancier nightclubs and within a few months I was able to quit my job at a bookstore and actually make a living as an actor.  I wound up doing The Fine Line for seven years.

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But I should mention that The Fine Line was not stand-up, it was sketch comedy—short vignettes on male-female relationships.  So we treated each sketch as a mini-play and had the awesome opportunity to explore different characters and different themes.  As The Fine Line moved from nightclubs into Equity theatres and television, the sketches were able to tackle more substantive subject matter, so in a way, I never strayed too far from my theatrical roots. 

I’ve never been able to see a clear break between comedy and drama. To this day, in all my writing, I aspire to find the humor in serious material and explore darker themes in the funny stuff.  And the choices I make are generally based on trying to keep things as real as possible, even the kids cartoon shows I write.  My favorite films (by Robert Altman, Nicole Holofcener, Alexander Payne, to name a few) shift effortlessly between comedy and drama because those directors acknowledge that life itself is a dramedy. 

And my favorite TV series (Taxi, Enlightened, The Comeback, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, The Larry Sanders Show, Friday Night Lights, The Sopranos to name a few) are all tonally mixed and character-driven.  As a kid The Dick Van Dyke Show was my favorite series because it was so much more real than other shows.  I usually find really broad material grating and unsatisfying.”

Improv is an innate skill that can be developed and mastered, but can it be learned? It seems like it requires a particular kind of freedom and/or daring that may not be natural to some people. 

“I don’t think one can learn to be a good actor or a good writer if one doesn’t already have natural-born talent in those areas, although, studying can certainly improve one’s skills.  But I genuinely believe that anyone can learn to be a good improviser.  It’s so much simpler than most people expect—it’s all about turning off the critical left-brain and being instinctive—acting from the gut instead of the mind.  I believe this because I’ve seen it over and over again with my own eyes.

For the past nine years I’ve been a volunteer at the Motion Picture and Television Fund (“the Old Actors Home”) where I teach improv to the senior citizen residents once a week.  The class includes both professional actors and non-actors and after a while I can’t see any division between the two.  It’s really satisfying to see my students learn to be “in the moment” and become playful children again.  When that happens, the words just fly out of their mouths and they give no thought at all as to what their next line of dialogue will be.  I should add that nothing is off-limits and more often than not the seniors take the material into R-rated territory.”

As an improv performer and teacher, do you find yourself giving a running mental commentary to most encounters in your daily life? And is this a potential source for what you may transform into written material at some point?  

“I don’t do this intentionally, but I did learn early on the importance of observing, so yes, I quietly soak everything in and am a huge people-watcher.  Sooner or later some of it is bound to wind up in my work.

Careers in Hollywood aren’t planned so much as they emerge over time – and you have become one of the prominent creators and executives in the world of children’s entertainment. Have all your roads naturally led you to this place, or did you make a wild left turn at some point?

“Lots of wild left turns.  I can honestly say I never even remotely intended to become either a studio executive or a writer/creator of family entertainment.  Opportunities present themselves and you sort of go with the flow.

 I feel fortunate to work in an industry that allows one to jump from one thing to the next– alternating writing, directing, producing, developing, acting and consulting.  Experience in one discipline often informs the others so the shifts aren’t at all counterproductive. 

What do you look for in a property that tells you kids will enjoy it? Whether it’s one of your own creations or a product you are being asked to shepherd, are there key elements that are personal must-haves for you to be interested?

“Humor and relatable characters are the most important ingredients for me, and there has to be genuine emotion in the storylines otherwise the shows just aren’t about anything.  

Unfortunately, the current trend in preschool programming is for curriculum-driven shows that can be didactic and condescending.  Executives are uncomfortable with conflict and emotion, which, of course, is what writers are always drawn to.

The note we get most often is that the characters have to be completely likable and “aspirational,” so displaying insecurity, anger, sadness or fear is pretty much off-limits.  Not only does this make for bland and humorless entertainment, it also doesn’t provide kids with the tools they need to exist in the real world.  It also explains why many parents no longer want to watch TV with their kids.  Sadly, smart and witty shows like Sesame Street and the Peanuts specials are a thing of the past.”

 

As an executive, did you think like a writer? And as a writer, do you think like an executive?

“The most fun part of my job as an executive was working hand-in-hand with writers and artists.  Nothing makes me happier than being surrounded by talented people.  I love working collaboratively with writers in a room, beating out a story with note cards on the wall.  Most executives, however, don’t have creative backgrounds so they’re often baffled by the creative process.

I remember being horrified the first time I was asked to compile a writers list for a project on which we hadn’t yet received the original writer’s first draft script—in other words, it was just assumed the first writer would be replaced and totally rewritten even before anyone had even read one page of the script.  And this turned out to be a common practice, not an anomaly.  

So, in answer to your question—yes, I did think like a writer while I was an executive but that trait often put me at odds with other executives which is why I ultimately decided to return to my writing.

As a writer, I try not to think like an executive until I at least get a first draft down on paper.   Trying to please people while creating isn’t a good idea.  But thinking like an executive is useful when I’m consulting on someone else’s screenplay because they usually want to know how to write something that will actually sell.”

You have found success as a hyphenate writer-producer-director on a live action short. Has it whetted your appetite to continue on that path?

 “Yes.  When I made my first short film, Hi, Lillian (which I co-wrote with Maureen Kelly), I did it mostly as a learning experience.  I was a little embarrassed by some of the technical flaws so when it began to win awards for Best Short at film festivals, I was pleasantly surprised and strongly encouraged to make another film.  Mostly because I was eager to apply what I had just learned (and to avoid a lot of the mistakes I had made.) 

I raised money via Indiegogo so my second film, Entanglement, (which is almost complete at the time of this writing) is far superior in terms of production quality, and a little more ambitious in terms of story.  Making it was an incredibly satisfying experience, mostly because of the level of talent involved including the actors, producers and crew.  I still have a lot to learn as a director so I’m hoping I’ll have the opportunity to do another film, although I don’t think I’m capable of forcing myself to go back to all my friends and family who donated money and ask for more. 

The most satisfying aspect of directing an indie film for me (and I suspect a lot of filmmakers), is that it’s a rare opportunity to have some control over your own material, to be able to say what you want to say.  I recently had lunch with a former writer who had enjoyed some success in the industry.  When I asked her why she gave up writing for television she said, “the n-word:  notes.””

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