[THREE CENTS] The Most Important Thing

A few weeks ago I found out that a guy I went to high school with had taken his own life.  Needless to say, it’s horrible.  I feel terrible for him, his family, everyone in his life.

I wasn’t friends with him back at school, but I knew who he was.  I had a fairly small class, so you pretty much knew who everyone was.

As far as I was aware at the time, he was just a kid like me.  He went to class, he played on the soccer team, he danced at the prom.  But he might’ve been struggling even back then.

Everyone knows that life can be hard.  And for people who suffer with mental or emotional problems; depression, maybe addiction…  It’s a hell of a lot harder.  Sometime more than people can take.

What does this have to do with writing?

I don’t know exactly.  But it certainly makes me stop and give some serious thought as to what it’s all about.

For some people, writing can be an outlet for their emotional turmoil.  A way to express their sometimes complicated thoughts, and maybe release some of that stress in their lives.

On the flip side, trying to make a go of it in the entertainment business can be exhausting, both physically and mentally.  It’s also highly competitive and filled with more than a few toxic individuals.  It can be difficult for even the most zen of personalities.

So if you struggle with the aforementioned emotional problems, depression, or addiction, it might not be the healthiest pursuit.  And being healthy and happy is more important than selling a script.  I know, there are days when it doesn’t feel that way, but you know it’s true.

So if you’re working in the business and it’s getting to you, really think long and hard about whether there’s something else out there that will bring more satisfaction to your life.  More peace.  More contentment.  Hopefully even joy.

And that message obviously covers all industries and all people.

As far as I know for sure, we only get this one life, so the most important thing to pursue is that happiness.

If you’re reading this and you’re struggling too, know that you’re not alone.  Don’t suffer in silence.  Find someone to help.  A friend.  A mentor.  A support group.  Anyone.

Just reach out.

And if you don’t know where to turn, someone who cares is only just a call or a click away. Don’t give up…

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

https://twitter.com/800273TALK

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[THE MAKING OF] Sight & Sound Film and “Nightmare Mosaic”

That’s either me or Steven Seagal.  Possibly Sting.  I’ll let the reader figure it out.

Ah, film school.  I imagine it’s a lot different today than when I went through it.  For one – we shot and edited with actual film. Not quite chiseling on stone tablets, thankfully, but an entirely different experience than capturing on digital files and cutting (non-linear no less) on a computer.

At NYU at the time, the first major production class was called “Sight & Sound Film” during sophomore year.

For most of us, this was the first time we got to advance beyond consumer level Super 8 and onto “professional” 16mm equipment.

It was go time.

My professor for that class was Christine Choy, who was not only an educator, but also a successful filmmaker.  As if to punctuate that distinction, we arrived at class one morning to learn that her documentary, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” had just been nominated for an Academy Award.  If she didn’t have our full attention before, that pretty much sealed it.

Before you could make a 4K feature with your cellphone, there was this beautiful baby.

Over the course of the semester, each student in the class conceived, directed, and edited four or five short films, usually based on an assigned concept.

The stock we were supplied with was black and white and there was no sync sound…  But we were still the auteurs of our own little masterpieces.

And for college credit to boot.

There was a definite lean toward being “artsy” at NYU.  A lot of very serious kids wandered around the building at 721 Broadway sporting jet black hair and matching Doc Martins.  Black and white film can lead you in that direction pretty quick, I guess.

As my partner Rhonda (who shared a pretty similar film school experience at Concordia in Montreal) points out, if there was anything you could rely on in a student film class, it would be a lot of movies featuring people walking through graveyards and looking at themselves in the mirror.  I suspect my fellow students at Tisch felt it was of paramount importance to create the opposite of what they imagined was being generated on the sunny – and shallow – campuses of USC and UCLA.

On second thought, maybe you should pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

Serious and artsy were never my thing, however.  My vision has always been of the more popcorn variety.  And the same went for my student films.  I did a gunfight parody centered around a game of Quarters, a Psycho spoof, and a mock (and mocking) movie trailer for an imaginary Steven Seagal action movie.

By the time our last assignment rolled around, I had seen a lot of serious, heavy, arty madness in class, and they felt ripe for the picking.  On.

Not that everyone was pretentious.  There were a lot of students in that class that shared at least some of my sensibilities and who I’m still friends with to this day, including prolific A.D. Maura McKeown Redmond, screenwriter and blog mentor Austin Hodgens, and filmmaker/documentarian Mark Smith.

Nevertheless, I decided that my final film would be a parody of all the movies I had seen by my fellow students (obviously, I didn’t give a lot of thought as to how that might affect my favorability ratings going forward).

Of course my ideas and my execution didn’t always merge as handily as I’d like.  Even though I was at college to study something I was excited about, my high school tendencies toward doing things at the last second of the last minute had not quite been overcome yet.

A list of things to parody and a storyboard full of ways to do it.  A dream dashed.

I think you can pick up on the foreshadowing.

Anyway, despite cutting it close, I still showed up at the school’s basement equipment room to pick up some helpful gear (like a camera and light meter), a whole ten minutes before closing time.

But it was already too late.  The filmmaking gods had chosen to flip me the bird and close the check-out early for the weekend. Curse you, Fridays!

Now I was screwed.  This film was supposed to be the culmination of everything I had learned in class, including incorporating audio.  But I wasn’t even going to be able to make one at all.  I’d simply run out of time.

I don’t remember what the hell went on between not being able to get the equipment and the class where we were supposed to screen the results, but the night before, I finally got to work.

Desperate times…

On the floor of my dorm room, I set up a rudimentary edit system, consisting of a glass mini fridge shelf set on top of a milk crate, with a desk lamp shining up and through it.  Then I taped a small piece of film on the glass as a guide, and used a razor blade to make cuts by hand.

But if I didn’t get an opportunity to shoot anything, what the hell was I cutting?

All the outtakes to my previous films for class, of course.  My magnum opus would ironically consist solely of footage I’d determined wasn’t good enough for anything I’d done up to that point.  I knew it wasn’t likely to win an Academy Award (probably not even a Razzie), but it felt like it was better than showing up empty-handed.

Man, what I would’ve given for this piece of cutting-edge technology.

The most substantial piece in that grab bag of discards was one long take of a P.O.V. walking up my dorm’s stairs and through the hall.  Soft focus (also known as blurry) and shaky, its duration alone nevertheless made it a no-brainer to use as the spine of the piece.

Into that, I cut assorted outtakes and trimmed clips from my other films, culminating in a shot of a screaming face.

It was not great.  Hell, it wan’t even good.  But it was something.  I called it “Nightmare Mosaic” in the hopes of making it sound more creative, and perhaps even intentional.

When the lights came up after screening it in class, reactions from teacher and students alike were less than enthusiastic.  Likely more puzzled than anything.  This was not going to reflect well in my final grade.  Nevertheless, my time was mercifully over, and we were moving on to the next student’s film.

At least until the aforementioned Mark Smith (who was also one of my roommates) laughingly blurted out that I had cut my film together in our dorm room the night before.

I was pissed.  And busted.  I couldn’t believe he’d rat me out like that for a laugh, seemingly undermining any chance I’d have to “get away with it.”

“Nightmare Mosaic”  This blurry still frame pretty much says it all.

Only it turned out to miraculously be my saving grace.

Suddenly Professor Choy wanted to know more.  We weren’t going to move on, we were going to dig in. How the hell did I cut a film in my dorm room?

I detailed the milk crate faux Steenbeck, combing through outtakes for an idea, even the attempt to quicken the pace as the film reached its climax by literally editing film by length, a la Eisenstein for “Battleship Potemkin” (finally, something I learned in film theory class I could actually apply).

And just like that, my Frankensteined celluloid monument to great ideas dashed by procrastination transformed into an impressive primer on guerrilla filmmaking, improvisation, and self determination.

Not quite enough for an “A,” of course.  Professor Choy wasn’t crazy.  But it was enough to prevent torpedoing my GPA.

My accompanying paperwork.  Clearly a tacit admission of guilt.

What’s the lesson here?

Not sure, really.  Don’t put yourself in terrible situations?  Probably. But more importantly – to me anyway – is never give up.

We all find ourselves in crappy circumstances, sometimes by our own doing, and sometimes through fate.  It’s normal to feel defeated and lament all the things that went wrong.

But only for a little while.  Then it’s time to get back up and make some lemonade.

Metaphorically delicious.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] I’ll Get Around To This

Limited time ticks away. But at least it looks cool doing it.

Let me open by saying I was initially hoping to have this ready to post last week.

Well, I may not be on time, but at least I’m on theme.

Procrastination.  It’s quite the beast, really.  It can easily eat up a writer’s day, week, even a lifetime if they let it.

And I do let it.  A lot.  Naturally, this is a huge problem if you’ve got ambitious plans and precious little free time.  You can’t afford to waste it.

And yet there are so many different ways to waste it.

Even before the internet (society’s most cutting-edge form of procrastination) there was already laundry, naps, coffee, newspapers (remember those?), and of course, television.

Still, you want to get your scripts finished or you probably wouldn’t have started them in the first place.  So if writing-avoidance is also a problem for you, what can you do to combat it?

Ideally, you want to get yourself a Rhonda Smiley, like me.  Not the actual one, but a metaphorical one.  On second thought, Rhonda herself might be the metaphor in this example (I feel like I should know this).

Regardless, what I’m talking about is a writing partner who doesn’t have a problem with procrastination.  Someone who is driven to get things done long before a deadline is bearing down on them.

Let me be clear.  I’m not suggesting your Rhonda Smiley do all the work while you binge watch Game of Thrones episodes.  Instead, this kind of partner helps keep you accountable and pushes you to do your share of the pages that need to get done in a timely manner.

But maybe you’re a lone wolf behind the keyboard, what then?  Obviously some form of time management (which may or may not be a future post) is key.  The real trick is figuring out what motivates you away from the distractions and back to the work.

Deadlines?

Looming.  Always looming.

This is pretty straightforward.  You can only procrastinate so much when a delivery is on the line (at least if you want to get paid, and have a chance at another assignment in the future).

If you don’t have to deliver to anyone but you, then you need to create a self-imposed deadline.  Once you decide when you want to have your draft finished, take out a calendar (and possibly a calculator) and work your way back from that date.  How many total pages are you hoping to achieve?  How many do you have so far?

Take the difference and divide that by the days until your deadline.  That number is the daily page target you’re gonna have to keep if you want to finish… when you want to finish.

Another form of self-imposed deadlines for aspiring professionals (even actual professionals) are screenwriting contests.  Entry deadlines are frequently cited as a good motivator for getting those fingers back on that keyboard and getting back to work. Financially speaking, early-bird entries are often cheaper.  That’s an even tighter deadline.

Maybe the cost savings will push you to be more efficient with your time.

What wouldn’t I do for a bag of these?

Deals?

Other than the fact that writing is supposed to be what you want to do in the first place…  What’s in it for you if you finish another page?  Another ten?

You decide, but make it tantalizing.  What kind of carrot do you respond to the best (I imagine it’s not an actual carrot.  If it is, you’re in a lot better shape than I am)?

Maybe after you finish each page, you agree to let yourself surf online for twenty minutes.  How about food?  An hour of writing and you give yourself a cookie.  Maybe get through an act and watch an episode of Project Runway.

Writing Buddies?

Like a gym buddy, sometimes just having someone else working parallel to you is enough motivation to get you working when your mind wants to drift away.

This isn’t an actual writing partner on a particular project, just someone you share goals with, like pages or drafts.  Someone who keeps you honest and on-the-job, while you do the same for them.

In a similar vein are social media prompts called Writing Sprints.  I’ve never actually participated in one myself, but I first heard of them via an article by Jeanne Bowerman at Script Magazine.  Basically it’s a call to arms for anyone who wants to join in and write at the crack of a digital starter’s gun.  You can read more about the concept via this post from Julie Duffy on Story a Day.

The Promised Land.

Ultimately, if you want to write professionally, you can’t let procrastination get the better of you.  For most people, I think a little procrastination is inevitable.  But if you notice that you’re spending more of your “writing time” goofing off than you are actually writing, then you really need to take stock and change some habits before it eats you alive.

Do what you can today and improve over time.  Build good habits.  Change your instincts.  Strengthen those brain muscles.

By the way if you have any unique procrastination busters, please share in the comments. This old dog can still afford to learn a few new tricks.

Now get to work.  I’ll do the same.

In just a minute.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Dan & Kevin Hageman: Write Brothers

Hageman, Hereth, and Hageman. Not a law firm. Yet.

If you haven’t heard of the Brothers Hageman yet, you’ve almost definitely seen their work.  Dan and Kevin Hageman are the creative minds behind some of the most successful animated features and series of the last few years.

Their writing credits include Hotel Transylvania, The Lego Movie, Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu, and most recently, as co-executive producers for Guillermo del Toro’s brand-new hit Netflix original series, Trollhunters.

They graciously took time out of their busy schedules to give us some insight into their process, their inspiration, and how intimidating it is (or isn’t) to work with the iconic director.

When did you realize you wanted to be screenwriters, and what do you consider your “big break?”

D: We had always loved movies, and yearned to be a part of them. Early on, Kevin wanted to direct, and I wanted to compose music for film. When it became apparent that no one would gladly hand over millions of dollars to make our dreams come true – we started writing our own stuff. Lucky for us, someone saw a glimmer of talent in us and gave us a shot. Even luckier, that someone was Steven Spielberg.

K: Our very first pitch was to Steven. We were nervous as all hell. It was like the Olympics, and failure was not an option! Happily, he loved it and it became our first writing assignment!

Trollhunters. Excellent from any angle.

You guys have done several very successful adaptations in both film and television. How do you approach the material to find your “take?” 

D: We talk about what the worst version of this movie could be, then we discuss the best version. Hopefully, we end up with something better than what the audience is expecting.

K: Whether it’s Hotel T, Lego Movie, Ninjago or Trollhunters, we always start with finding the wish fulfillment and the heart. Once we feel like we’ve captured both, then we know we have something special on our hands.

As writing partners, what’s your collaboration process?  

Do you take turns with drafts, split it into sections, write side-by-side on the computer…?

D: We always start with talking about the project. When we feel like we’re on the same page, we start breaking it down together, and continually talk about theme and arcs. Once we feel like we have a good grasp on the material, we divide and conquer. Then exchange scenes and make our changes. Lastly, we go over it together with a fine tooth comb and polish.

K: To add, Dan has a talent at the scenes that require tricky or witty dialogue. My talent leans more toward the visual sequences that require more of a director’s eye.

Do you ever have creative differences that spill over into family gatherings? How do you avoid violence around the Thanksgiving turkey?

D: As with any writing partner, we have our fair share of creative differences, but we usually keep our frustrations to ourselves during the writing process (and they can get fierce). We look forward to family gatherings since we try not to think about writing and just be brothers.

K: I also think we both allow our frustrations to roll off our back. We might be furious with each other one hour, but then we’re laughing and hanging out the next.

Or in the light. The light’s good too.

At this point in your careers, how do you generally find your “next jobs?”  Are you approached with material, do you create spec projects to pitch, or both?

D: A bit of both. If we’re not inspired by the material that’s shown to us, we’ll drift into thinking about our own originals.

K: We’re currently in the fortunate position to have work shown to us. Whether it’s a director, producer or studio, we’ve been developing ideas/projects from the ground up for/with them. We’ve been wishing for some down time so we can try to push our own originals.

I’ve read that you’re working on a feature adaptation of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” for Guillermo, so I imagine you had a good working relationship at DreamWorks.  How did you first get involved in Trollhunters?

D: DreamWorks Animation had asked if we had interest in helping showrun GDT’s series Trollhunters. We have great respect for him, so we jumped at the chance. Partway through the writing process on Trollhunters, GDT liked what we were doing and pulled us aside and asked if we had enough time to help him on Scary Stories. We didn’t have the time, but of course, we said ‘yes’! Glad we did. We love working with him.

Compared to broadcast, did the Netflix model of dropping an entire season at once influence the way you and your writing staff approached the episodes?

D: It concerned us at first, but after they explained why, we saw it as a real plus and a real honor. It was the largest drop ever, and at the busiest time of year. It didn’t really influence us too much – we set out to break down 13 episode arcs. They just happened to decide to drop 26.

K: Normally in television, you’re lucky to be guaranteed 13 episodes, and we got 26! That’s unheard of. So we jumped at the chance to develop one long epic story.

The Lego Movie – The ultimate “block” buster.

Was there a character in Trollhunters that was a personal favorite to write for?  

And did seeing that character come to life onscreen change how they were used in any season or series arcs?

D: Strickler was an interesting cat. We had some great material with him left on the cutting room floor. I love sympathetic, smart villains.

K: Boy, many of us just fell in love with all of the characters. We – and the writers room – strived to make every character great, as if they deserved their own series. For me, I love Strickler. And Toby D is just infectious.

I’ve heard a rumor that you’ve put a lot of Easter Eggs in the show that relate to some of your genre influences.  What kinds of things should viewers keep their eyes out for in Season 1?

D: We don’t have any say in what gets animated for the final product, but I can say we kept a board up in our writer’s room that took a tally of every movie or television show we were ripping off. Some more blatant than others.

K: Some films influences to look for: The Goonies, Big Trouble in Little China, The Lost Boys, Young Sherlock Holmes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins, The Last Starfighter, The ‘Burbs, Rear Window, The Thing, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Weird Science, The Monster Squad, Return of the Jedi… I could go on! There’s even references to my senior thesis short from Loyola Marymount film school –‘Dawn of the Dwellers’ – which just so happens to be about some geeks who discover monsters are living underneath their town!

A comedy/monster mash-up.

Do you ever get writer’s block?  If so, how do you battle it?

D: Not really. We may not figure something out right off the bat, but we usually attack every story problem from a thousand directions. It’s helpful just to write the bad version of what you want to say/do – then relook at it in a future rewrite. The solution usually presents itself.

K: What we also do when we hit writers block is we say ‘lets just put a pin in it’. We set that portion of the story aside, and concentrate on another part of the script we know how to tackle.

What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters?

D: It’s cliché – but just keep writing. It’s a game of perseverance.

K: Yep. I spent 7 years working in film development until we finally sold something. It takes time, and it takes having connections. So get a job or internship in Hollywood and make contacts as you keep writing.

 

SHORT ATTENTION SPAN ROUND

Heathcliff or Garfield?

D: Neither.

K: Ugh. I hate cats.

Keaton or Bale?

D: Bale as Batman. Keaton for everything else.

K: Bale as Batman. Keaton as Mr. Mom. Could Bale do Beetlejuice? Nah.

Not to be confused with the exercise class. 

Gremlins or Goonies?

D: Both.

K: Two of my favorites. But Goonies is framed in my office.

Connery or Craig?

D: I like what Craig is doing with the character.

K: Craig. I love the more grounded approach to characters like Mendes’ Bond and Nolan’s Batman.

Team Cap or Team Iron Man?

D: Why must they fight?

K: Marvel movies lost me years ago. They’re all the same. I’m only a Guardians fan now.

Beatles or Stones?

D: Beatles.

K: Uh… Stone Roses?

 

You’ll have to hold off a while longer for Scary Stories to go into production, but all 26 episodes of the first season of DreamWorks Trollhunters were released December 23rd and are available for streaming on Netflix right now. What’re you waiting for?

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[THREE CENTS] Strange Brew

The directors of the 1960’s Batman series would appreciate this canted angle.

I’ll be writing this post under the assumption that you’ve seen Marvel’s Doctor Strange.  If you haven’t, well, SPOILER ALERT: I’ll be spoiling it.

(and maybe spoiling watching movies in general)

After many years in a lifetime of film, television, and pop culture consumption, you reach a point where you might not have seen it all, but you’ve certainly seen a lot.

Compound that with going to film school, reading books, articles, and posts about screenwriting (kinda like this one), as well as doing a lot of actual screenwriting itself, and you become very, very familiar with all kinds of paradigms and tropes.

These are the dramatic tricks of the trade, the tools you use to construct a completed script from the vague, amorphous – perhaps gelatinous – story in your imagination.  There are set-ups and payoffs, act breaks and turning points, sacrificial lambs, callbacks, and the dark night of the soul, to name more than a few.

I think you know what I’m talking about.

Okay, well, that’s where I’m at right now.  And what happens as a result is that it’s really rare to just watch a movie or television show and enjoy it purely as a dramatic story.  In some ways, it’s translucent.  You see the story, of course, but you simultaneously see through the story to all the gears, cogs, pulleys, and duct tape that hold it together and make it work.

Or frequently not work.

So it’s the sad truth that it’s pretty rare for a movie to blow me away or somehow feel revolutionary anymore.

Which is the case with Doctor Strange.  I don’t mean to suggest that it’s bad or boring.  It’s not.  What it is, though, is just a little too familiar.

Doctor Strange or Stan Lee?  Not as easy to figure out as you’d think.

I’m rather partial to the studio blockbuster, so the Marvel Cinematic Universe usually gets me out of the house and into an actual movie theater.

In this case, despite not knowing much at all about Doctor Strange from the comics, other than he seemed like some sort of hippy wizard magician from the seventies, who looked vaguely like a young Stan Lee.

Was he a practitioner of alternative medicine?  A fortune teller? Ringmaster for a Cirque de Soleil troupe?

Well, I was about to find out.  So here’s how the movie went through these writer’s eyes…

SPOILERS A COMING.  YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

Let’s start right at the top at the Pacific Theaters Glendale 18, after I’ve taken my last-possible-second bathroom break.

Once the Coming Attractions wrapped up, we were greeted by the new Marvel Logo which incorporated live-action shots from the MCU movies.  Felt a little cheesy, I’m afraid.  I much preferred the previous version which just used images of comic art.

As the movie proper started, we met our antagonist right out of the gate.  As a writer, you obviously need to establish the level of your villain’s villainy fairly early, so that we know what our hero is going to be up against.  This usually falls within a range of Elmer Fudd to Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List.

Here it didn’t take too long at all, as Mads Mikkelsen’s character, Kaecilius, quickly relieves a librarian monk of his head and steals some pages from a spell book.  Okay.  Murderously villainesque.  Understood.

That theft led to a chase through the Mirror Dimension.  It was a cool effect for sure, but it reminded me a bit of Dark City.  Did anyone else see that?  No?  Just me?  It was during that period between Keifer Sutherland being a leading man in features and a leading man on television.

The comics origin of Doctor Strange.  And his tights.

After that mandatory early action sequence, we transitioned to an establishing shot of the New York City skyline, which included the Avengers headquarters.  Had to remind everyone of that shared universe, after all.

Anyway, our next introduction was to the hero himself.  My very first thought was: Hey, he doesn’t have an English accent.  I guess the character of Doctor Strange is an American, even though the actor playing him isn’t.  Who knew?  (you know, other than the millions of people who’ve read his comic books over the last four decades or so)

Quick sidebar on the odd fact that so many American superheroes have been played by non-American actors in recent years.  Eric Bana, Hugh Jackman, Henry Cavill, Christian Bale, Sebastian Stan…

Not a new discovery, by any means, but it feels a little odd to have all our superhero jobs outsourced.

Anyway, back to Doctor Strange as the writer went about making sure we rooted for the protagonist.  To start with, we were shown that he’s a sought-after-surgeon, who could perform virtual miracles in the O.R.  And he played Name That Tune with his staff during the procedures, so we knew he was fun and pop-culture savvy.

Following all the doctor-y heroics, we got to see the all-important character flaw that Strange would have to overcome before Fade Out.  As he recklessly drove his super-expensive sports car on a windy road, he talked with an assistant and made sure to show how much of a narcissistic know-it-all he was.  He didn’t choose cases based on need, but rather whether he could guarantee a successful surgery, and whether it would give him the maximum accolades.

What a douche.  Room for growth?  Check.

After Strange’s wreck and partial recovery, he went to meet Jonathan Pangborn in a scene that had surprisingly little for Benjamin Bratt – who played him – to do.  But since Bratt’s a pretty well-known actor, the casting choice alone pretty much tipped it off that we’d see him again later.

Seriously.  Stan Lee, amirite?

Once in Nepal, the Ancient One sends Strange on a Magical Mystery Tour Across the Universe (bonus points for the double Beatles reference).

The visuals here really came off like a 1960’s movie acid trip, which probably served well as a callback to the old school comics’ version of Doctor Strange.  Psychedelic, man.  Far out.

The Sling Ring.  Without any research, I went out on a limb and assumed this had to be part of the comic canon as it sounded a little silly for a feature film in 2016.  I allowed it.

Boy, the guy who was supposed to protect the New York Sanctum was taken down pretty easily by Kaecilius and his crew.  Not sure if he was some sort of nepotism hire, but that was a pretty poor reflection on a secret organization whose duty it is to keep the dimensions safe.

Meanwhile, the newbie with the bum hands did a whole lot better fending off the baddies in his first ever magic fight.  Where was the Cloak of Levitation when the first guy needed it?

The Mirror Dimension.  No, wait…

Just before plot point two, there was a huge action scene in the Mirror Dimension.  Characters were walking on walls and climbing up the ground.  Again, it was pretty cool.  But I had no idea what the rules were, who was turning the dimensional kaleidoscope at any time, and more importantly, I still felt like I’d seen recent similar off-axis setpieces.

There was the whole Inception thing of course, and just this past summer, an action sequence that took place on a crashing, twisting Enterprise in Star Trek Beyond.

The Doctor Strange climax itself hinged on a time loop that bore an awfully big resemblance to Edge of Tomorrow.  It was clever and even funny, but too familiar to really appreciate.

So, you see, if you do this thing long enough, it’s hard to really let go of all your filmmaker instincts and just enjoy yourself at the theater.  On the other hand, Milk Duds.

In the end, though, I’d still give Doctor Strange a thumbs up.  Just not up as far as it was for Pulp Fiction and The Matrix.

Let’s see how I over-analyze Rogue One

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Talking Shop with Harry Elfont

Two writers at a Broadway show about writers.  This is where the universe begins to fold in on itself.

Two writers at a Broadway show about writers.  This is where the universe begins to fold in on itself.

As an aspiring Hollywood hyphenate, the first network you have coming out of college (provided you even went to college), is your fellow alumni.

Screenwriter and director Harry Elfont was part of that NYU network for me, and we spent some of our early professional years struggling side-by-side to make something happen.

And then for Harry, it did.  Hard.

Harry and his writing partner, Deb Kaplan, were part of the spec script frenzy of the nineties, leading to a very exciting start to their careers.

And although their spec was never produced, they went on to write a series of movies, including “A Very Brady Sequel,” “Surviving Christmas,” and “Leap Year,” as well as their feature directorial debut, “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

His latest project is the series, “Mary + Jane,” which just wrapped up its first season on MTV.  I dug in a little to find out the “hows” behind Harry’s success, and it went a little something like this…

What’s the first thing you remember writing that wasn’t a school assignment?

In third grade I wrote a comic strip called Grampa Fuzzy (that spelling was a strong creative choice) which was basically a character that looked like Cousin It from the Addams Family with a top hat and a basic face.  I got super annoyed when some other kids in the class started doodling the character in their notebooks.  My teacher tried to explain that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that, but I wasn’t having it.  I was clearly very concerned with intellectual property rights at a young age.  I actually submitted the strips to the local Philadelphia papers.  They sent a very nice rejection letter.  Which is understandable because one of the strips was literally ripped off from a Ziggy (way before Seinfeld did it).

Can't Hardly Wait... For walking-around goggles to come back into style.

Can’t Hardly Wait… For walking-around goggles to come back into style.

What do you consider your professional “big break,” and how did it come about?

Definitely when Deb Kaplan and I sold our spec screenplay “The Family Way” to Paramount and The Ladd Company in the mid 90’s.

It led directly to our first produced credit (A Very Brady Sequel) and opened all kinds of doors for us in the movie business.  It’s also how we met producer Jenno Topping, who would later produce Can’t Hardly Wait.

It came about when Deb called me when she was on location working as an assistant to a producer, but feeling the urge to do something more creative.  She had an idea for a romantic comedy and suggested we write it together.  So we did.

What’s your writing process as a team?  Do you work together over the computer, split a script into sections, take turns on consecutive drafts, etc.?

We outline together, then split up scenes to write separately.  We usually write a couple of scenes at a time (enough for one or two day’s worth of work), then read each other’s pages and keep moving forward.  We tend to not go back and makes changes in the first rough draft.  We just keep going until we get to the end.  It’s the fastest way to power though a first draft.  Then we can read it through and see what we’ve really got.  We get together and discuss our notes on the draft.  If there are scenes that need to be re-written from scratch, we’ll split those up.  Then we sit in the same room and polish the draft together.

What do you like most about writing features?

Typing THE END.  Kidding.  Kind of.  Because there is a limited amount of time and a definite ending, movies tend to be more story driven.  So I like the ability to just tell a good story start to finish.  Deb and I spend a lot of time talking about structure when writing a feature.  We talk in terms of the traditional three act structure as a guide (though, depending on the project, deviate as desired).  A big studio comedy might call for large scale set-pieces which can be fun to invent, but a small character driven film can be pages of very dense dialogue.  Each can be fun to write in their own way.

What do you like most about writing television?

What’s great about TV is that there is no ending!  At least not one we’re planning for…  I’ve been enjoying the ability to keep telling new stories each week for the same characters and not really worrying where it’s going in the end.  Obviously each episode has it’s own structure, but our show isn’t serialized, so each week we do a pretty full reset, which has been liberating.  I do think it’d be great to do a serialized show as well.  And tell one huge over-arcing story over many episodes, but there’s definitely a creative freedom to knowing each episode you can reinvent and try something new.

Deb Kaplan "Mary" "Jane" Harry Elfont

Deb Kaplan and Harry Elfont flanking “Mary + Jane” stars Scout Durwood and Jessica Rothe

It’s also been interesting to write for the same characters and the same performers over ten episodes.

It’s been fun to dig deeper into who these characters are, how their relationship changes, and how to write towards the strengths of our very talented performers.

The real truth is, after spending a lot of time writing features that wind up in development hell, or pilots that never make it to air, the real thing I like about movies or TV is finally getting the work in front of an audience.  That’s the whole point of all of this, but it’s actually a rare occurrence.

What was the genesis of “Mary + Jane?”  Did someone come to you to develop the idea or did you two create it from scratch and pitch it around town?

It was our original idea and we had started to pitch it — nothing formal, we just mentioned the idea to people in meetings — and we kept getting the same response: “So it’s like a younger version of Weeds.”  We knew our show should feel very different from Weeds tonally, so we decided we’d be better off if we just wrote the pilot on spec.  We’d also been through some rough development experiences with TV pilots, so we were eager to just write something that we liked.  And not really worry about making sure there’s enough exposition in the opening scenes, and be as out there as we wanted to with language, or comedy or tone.  It was actually the first pilot script we ever wrote on spec.  And turned out to be the first series we ever had picked up to air.

Mary + Jane on MTV. If I didn't know any better, I'd this this show was ab out pot.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think this show had something to do with pot.

What’s it like to produce a television series with Snoop Dogg?

There is nobody cooler than Snoop Dogg.  He actually joined the project after we went into production, but he’s been an incredibly supportive partner in promoting the show and being our resident weed expert.  He also ended up writing a theme song for us.  It’s pretty staggering when you hear that iconic Snoop Dogg voice singing about your show.

Other than “Mary + Jane,” what was your favorite project to work on?

Probably Can’t Hardly Wait.  It was the first movie we directed and basically the whole movie is set at a party, so every day we went to “work” at a party.

The cast was all young and unknown for the most part and the budget was pretty low, so there wasn’t a lot of pressure on the set.  Everyone on the crew (who’d been doing this for years) kept telling us, “It’s never like this.  Enjoy it!”

It’s also been nice to see that movie find an audience after it was released and be one of those touchstone high school movies for people who were teenagers at the time.

If you could get your hands on any property to develop – books, plays, toys, previously produced movies or series, etc. – what would it be?

After having written sequels, TV show-to movies, and comic adaptations, I’d personally rather work on original material.  That said, I wouldn’t turn down a Star Wars movie if they were offering!

Scout Durwood and Harry Elfont in front of the Richard Rodgers Theater, bringing this post full-circle 22 years later.

Scout Durwood and Harry Elfont in front of the Richard Rodgers Theater, bringing this post full-circle 22 years later.

Now that you’ve been working in this business for a while, what are you better at today than you were when you started out?

Time management.  But that’s mostly because now I have a family.  I like to think my taste has gotten better and that my writing has evolved, but that’s tough for me to judge.

What kind of advice would you give to writers looking to follow in your footsteps?

Obviously, write as much as you can.  Not just on that one screenplay or pilot.  Finish one and come up with the next one.  Keep generating material.  You’ll keep getting better with each draft.

The other thing is to make sure you’re working on something you would actually like to see as a viewer.  Otherwise you’re just trying to play the market.

THE SHORT ATTENTION SPAN ROUND

Star Wars or Star Trek?

Star Wars

Coffee or Tea?

Both

Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton?

Keaton

 

Other than “Both” (the correct answer is “Coffee”), Harry had almost a perfect score!  You can check out any episodes that you missed of his show, “Mary + Jane,” on Amazon right this very second.  

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Do You Really Want to do This?

Hollywood. It's harder than it looks.

Hollywood.  It’s harder than it looks.  No, harder.

Everybody and their cousin has an idea for a movie or television show.  Some of them have a lot (of ideas, that is, not cousins).

Well, sure they do, ideas are the easy part (a dime a dozen used to be the going rate, not really sure where we are now with inflation, Brexit, and the presidential election).  The hard part, of course, is writing them down.  Even harder?  Writing them well.

But let’s say you’ve done all that.  You’ve written three acts in the proper format.  You’ve gone all-in with a beginning, middle, and an end.  Skillfully executed from “Fade In” to “Fade Out.”

Are you ready to be the next Lawrence Kasdan, Shonda Rhimes, or J.J. Abrams?

Don’t be ridiculous.  If you’re looking to pursue a career as a screenwriter, you’ve only just begun to fight.

Let’s be honest for a moment (just a moment, though, this is the entertainment industry after all).  Being a professional screenwriter is not easy.  It’s not easy to do the job, and most of the time it’s even harder to get it in the first place.

Even in the best-case-scenario, you don’t get to just dream up stories, collect a check, and have somebody produce and distribute your “masterpiece” to the world.  There are filters.  A lot of filters.

The thirtieth draft is the charm...

The thirtieth draft is the charm…

Let’s start with notes.

Your “finished” draft is never going to be the one that gets shot.  Not before a small army of other people chime in with their two cents first.

What’s it like to run the notes gauntlet?

For one, a lot of people who give them don’t take into consideration the feelings of the writer on the receiving end.  Some of them are downright – and unnecessarily – mean.  Some notes are kind of dumb.  Of course, there are nice, thoughtful, insightful notes too.  But the majority of them are not.

On the balance, the notes you get will be someone’s subjective opinions of what they think would be better.  And if they’re paying, it’s up to you to not only implement them, but to make them work well and seamlessly.  You can push back here and there, but if you push back too frequently, or too vehemently, that job is not likely to end well.

Okay, let’s say you’ve gotten a paying job, weathered the development storm and got your first professional credit.  From here on in, the phone just starts ringing, and all you have to do is sift through the lucrative offers, right?

I think you know the answer to that already.

If getting your first professional gig is tough, continuing to get others and make a living at it is tough plus.  To even have a chance, you obviously need to be a decent writer (ideally much better than that), but you also need to be a good person to work with – friendly and personable, and generally hygienic – if you want those people to consider hiring you again (this also comes back to how well you dealt with/incorporated their notes).

You also have to pray that the people who do come to regularly hire you don’t leave the business, get fired, become your competition, or – the most difficult to overcome – die (this has really happened to me and my partners on more than one occasion.  Tragic, of course, but also a bit of a career letdown).

Imagine now, that you’ve succeeded in building a network and you’re getting jobs here and there.  Even then you might not get the volume you need to make a living.  Can you still be a working screenwriter?  There’s no reason why not, but it requires that much more drive.

For much of my career, I’ve had to supplement my writing income with income from somewhere else.  The classic “day job.”  In fact, it’s often the reverse, with my writing work supplementing my full-time salary.

In that scenario, you need to find the energy to work that primary job while also managing the rest of your “free” time so that you can be creative while still meeting deadlines.  Not easy.

So, the question now, is – can you do that?  Can you survive and thrive, and not go on a ten state killing spree while dealing with all these obstacles (not to mention the alarming amount of toxic people this business seems to attract)?

Again.  Do you really want to do this?

Do you have what it takes to get here?

A journey to a thousand Klieg lights begins with a single script.

If it’s something you’re desperate to do…  If you can’t imagine going through life without at least taking a chance…  Then maybe this is the business for you.

Are you tough, smart, creative and hardworking?  Or at least willing to strive toward those goals?

Do you get excited about the stories you write?  Are you driven by the idea of sharing them with the world?  Getting a laugh?  Drawing a tear?  Having that first credit glow to life onscreen, and that IMDb page fill up with titles?

During the dark times of my career (and there have been more than I care to remember, thanks a lot for bringing it up), I’ve considered quitting.  Then I’d think about what my life would be like without writing and…  I just couldn’t.  I knew I’d feel disappointed in myself and regret “giving up.”  It would haunt me.

The bottom line here, and the important thing to think about, is whether or not you’re up for an ongoing struggle.  Because if this isn’t something that you really want to do, that you’re willing to take quite a beating for, then save yourself the trouble and do something else that you are passionate and driven to do.

The rest of us will be happy with just a little less competition.

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[SPOTLIGHT] Kuu Kuu Harajuku

kkh-and-gwen-3

Clockwise from bottom left:  Angel, Love, Gwen, Music, Baby, and G.  As if you didn’t know that already…

Let me get this out of the way right at the top.  I’ve never met Gwen Stefani.

Nevertheless, Rhonda Smiley and I have been writing on her show for a while now, and it premieres in the U.S. on Nickelodeon today at four (featuring one of our episodes, “Angel’s Flight”).

This is not insignificant, as I’ve written on international co-productions before that didn’t air in the U.S. until years after they were out of production, or sometimes not at all.  That’s the global marketplace, of course, and one of the things you contend with as a freelancer.

Still, being a working writer can feel a little less rewarding when people think of you like that kid in Junior High who always talked about his “girlfriend in Canada” that no one ever met.

Sure you’ve written four episodes of a show for Disney Channel France.  Wink wink.

Sigh.

Rhonda and I discuss some episode notes with a wax figure of Gwen in Las Vegas. About as productive as you might imagine.

Rhonda and I discuss some episode notes with a wax figure of Gwen in Las Vegas.  About as productive as you might imagine.

Kuu Kuu Harajuku started life abroad as well.  The show is a joint production of an Australian company – Moody Street Kids – and a Malaysian one – Vision Animation.

But animation production takes significantly more time than recording a six second Vine with your phone and uploading it to the web.

In fact, it can take years between the moment you type “fade out” on a script and that episode finally hits the airwaves.  And in the meantime, you’re stuck in a sort of industry limbo.

A strongly-worded NDA can throw a pretty hefty-sized wrench into your ability to milk some self-promotional magic in the social media world while you’re waiting too.  In fact, the words “Gwen” and “Stefani” were actually verboten for me up until a couple of weeks ago.

“I know half my IMDb page looks like it’s filled with made-up titles, but I’m huge in Germany.  Huge, I tell you!”

But the day has come at last thanks to the hard work of distribution staff I don’t even know.  I can finally talk about a show I’m working on and listeners will actually understand what I’m referring to.

LoliRock. Band by day, Magical Princesses by... well... actually also by day.

LoliRock.  Band by day, Magical Princesses by… well… actually also by day.

Jokes aside, perception is important in this business, and a list of unfamiliar credits can make it that much harder to impress potential employers.  So landing on a major U.S. Network like Nickelodeon is a big deal.

Oddly enough, Kuu Kuu Harajuku is my second show in a row that revolves around a girl band, following Marathon Media’s LoliRock (though the Kuu Kuu kids aren’t magical princesses.  Yet, anyway.  Who knows what might happen in seasons ten and eleven).

To quote the press release…

“Kuu Kuu Harajuku follows the adventures of the musical group HJ5: Love, Angel, Music, Baby and their inspirational leader, G.  Despite their superstar talent, HJ5′s manager Rudie, angry aliens, NoFun politicians, hungry monster pets and other obstacles are constantly interrupting their gigs, and they never get to finish a concert — but G and her friends never give up!”

After this week’s daily episodes at four, the show will move to its regular slot Saturday mornings at 8:30.

Remember, the only thing better than a name-brand show is a name-brand show that’s also a monster hit.  So get on it, people.  Watch early, and often.  And don’t forget to spread the word.

Tick tock.  What you waiting for?

 

FULL DISCLOSURE: My girlfriend actually is from Canada.  But she’s totally real.  You can even ask my mom.

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[THE MAKING OF] Drawing Conclusions. And Comics.

Before movie and television writing became my focus, my creative outlet of choice was drawing.  Like most kids, I guess.  It’s kind of mandatory coursework in the early schooling phases, alongside Introduction to Napping and Paste Eating 101.

The semi-serious comic strip instructional manual.

The semi-serious comic strip instructional manual.

For me, though, it became sort of a “thing.”  I liked it, I was pretty good at it, and it was something I identified myself by.  As the years went on, I gradually advanced beyond finger-painting and macaroni collage, though I still never thought of myself as a fine artist – the italicized arteest.  Rather, I was a “cartoonist.”

And I didn’t just love drawing them, I loved reading them too.

On Sunday mornings, I excitedly looked forward to diving into the comics section of the New York Daily News (even Dondi and Brenda Starr, Reporter).  I thought to myself, I could do that.  I want to do that.  Maybe that’s what I was gonna do when I grew up. 

This idea was further reinforced when I got the Mort Walker autobiography, “Backstage at the Strips,” along with his how-to book, “The Lexicon of Comicana.”

Walker was the creator of Beetle Bailey and Boner’s Ark, as well as Hi and Louis with Dik Brown.  Backstage at the Strips told the story of his journey to becoming a successful comic strip artist, and working in a barn behind his house alongside several colleagues.

Man, that sounded so cool.

All I had to do was dream up a comic of my own, and maybe I could work in that barn too.

Somewhere in there is a decent joke just trying to come out. Just needs ten or twelve more passes to realize its full potential.

Somewhere in there is a decent joke just trying to come out.  Just needs ten or twelve more passes to realize its full potential.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t as easy as I thought it might be, and I never generated much finished material.  I created a lot of character line-ups and concepts, sure, but few actual strips.

Where my muse ended up being found, was in the somewhat longer form of comic books.

At the time, my parents were regulars at any garage sale or flea market within a hundred and fifty mile radius.  When my sisters and I would tag along, we’d inevitably pick up assorted secondhand superhero books, along with numerous Richie Rich issues and Archie digests.

I even got my first ever comic book subscription, in the form of the Star Wars continuing adventures, which always arrived via mail wrapped in a brown paper sleeve like a miniature Playboy magazine.

After I’d gone through those, I’d periodically sift through the stacks at the local library for Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon compilations.

All of this rich inspirational material eventually led to my magnum opus, Space Wars.

Space Wars

Space Wars “classic.”  In its original legal-sized format.

Surely you’ve heard of it.  My wholly unique and not-at-all-derivative sci-fi masterpiece combining all the best features of Star Wars, Battlestar GalacticaBuck Rogers in the 25th Century, and maybe just a soupçon of Jason of Star Command.

I drew these ongoing adventures on various shades of colored legal paper (which were ubiquitous in our house, thanks to my parents’ printing side business).  Or at least, I did until I hit the big time.

In the fifth or sixth grade I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in my elementary school’s “Gifted and Talented” program (obviously, this was before I stopped doing homework in later high school with the accompanying decline in academic status).

My comic book debut.

The Space Wars reboot.  My public comic book debut as both writer and artist.  Oddly, now out of print.  

I don’t remember if this was my idea or theirs, but the program offered to “publish” a comic of mine – written and drawn specifically for the occasion – and distribute it to my fellow students.

Once I completed my twenty-page Space Wars masterpiece, it was Xeroxed on 8½ x 11 paper, stapled together, and the copies handed out to my class.

If that wasn’t awesome enough already, one kid even paid me five bucks to color his copy with magic markers.

I was a professional.

Despite these epic successes, however, I sort of drifted away from the art world after high school and into the scripting one.

Still, the skill remained useful.  While writing screenplays with elaborate action scenes, I’d periodically draw out the intended choreography to see if it made sense (or maybe even led to something better).  Other times, I’d diagram a complicated location or just doodle my characters in scripted situations for inspiration.

Writing animation professionally, I’ve even supplemented a script delivery with a drawing or diagram for clarification (do not do this in specs, though.  Very frowned upon).

A sneak peek behind the scenes of the yet-to-be-purchased million-dollar spec, “Deep Trouble.”

A sneak peek behind the scenes of the yet-to-be-purchased spec, “Deep Trouble.”

Recently, however, I found myself intrigued by comics all over again.  Drawn back by the escalating trend of comic source material across every platform of the entertainment industry, and the rise of the geek world to mainstream prominence.

So I dipped my toe back in, and eventually the entire foot.  Sought out both iconic and trending books, like The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, Saga, and The Walking Dead.  Checked out work by friends and associates, including Adam Beechen’s Hench, and Andi Ewington’s 45 (Forty-five).

I wanted to be a part of this world.  I wanted to go back to my roots and tell a story in the form of a graphic novel.  Bring my imagination to life in sequential art.

To make that dream come true, Rhonda Smiley and I have adapted Blowback, a script of ours that seems like a natural for the medium, and we’re going to publish it ourselves.

I’m not going to draw this one, of course.  High School amateur is not the style sense we’re shooting for.  This time I’ll stick to words and leave the artwork to a veteran pro.

As of right now, Rhonda and I have agreed in principle with an awesome artist and if all goes well in the contract stage, they should be putting pencil to paper (both metaphorically and literally) within a month.

If you’re interested, you’re cordially invited to join me on this journey.  Read along as I share the ups, downs, blood, sweat, and tears (hopefully more “ups” than “tears”).

Brace yourself, though, I’ve got a feeling it’s gonna be a pretty bumpy ride between here and Comic-Con.  But we’ll press on, regardless.

Excelsior!

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[THE NETWORK] The Stinky & Dirty Show

“Mowgli: The New Adventures of the Jungle Book” with Costa Rica playing the part of India

Fellow screenwriter, Guy Toubes, and I both went to NYU together. But as far as I know we never met there.  We had a lot of mutual friends, though, which is how we eventually connected out in Los Angeles after we both graduated.

Working together at the independent production company, Wolfcrest Entertainment, we collaborated on lots of different projects.  All brilliant, of course, but with varying levels of success.

Our crowning achievement there was undoubtedly the live-action series, “Mowgli: The New Adventures of the Jungle Book,” which we created along with Tim Bogart for the Fox Kids Network (that experience itself will fill many a post moving forward, but that’s not what this one’s about).

"The Adventures of Chuck and Friends"

“The Adventures of Chuck and Friends”

Since Wolfcrest, Guy and I have had the opportunity to work together again a few times.  Most recently, Rhonda Smiley and I wrote six episodes of the Hub’s “The Adventures of Chuck and Friends,” for Guy, who was the show’s Story Editor at the time.

Clearly, we’re partial to shows with “Adventures” in the title.

Anyway, Guy’s latest creation is a brand new talking truck series, “The Stinky & Dirty Show,” an Amazon Original.  He developed the kids’ show based on the book series by Jim and Kate McMullan (who are real people, apparently, though we’ve never met).

"The Stinky & Dirty Show," and Amazon Original Series

“The Stinky & Dirty Show,” an Amazon Original Series created by Guy Toubes

Here’s the official pitch:

The adventures of best friends and unlikely heroes, Stinky the garbage truck and Dirty the backhoe loader, a dynamic and hilarious duo of resourcefulness that learn that when things don’t go as expected, asking “what if” can lead to success.

Good advice for all ages, really.

In addition to the show’s up-and-coming voice talent stars, they’ve got some cool celebrity contributions as well, including Jane Lynch, Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn, Andy Richter, and Whoopi Goldberg.

(When you’re writing for an animated show, cool celebrity voices are always a plus)

Anyway, if you’ve got some young kids in the house (or maybe you’re just one at heart), click on over and check it out.

The season premiered just last week on September 2nd, so it’s not too late to get up-to-date and avoid any spoilers before all the water cooler talk at the office.

You’ll need to be an Amazon Prime member, but you can always try their 30-day free trial in case you aren’t ready to commit.

Tell ’em Jim sent you, and enjoy!

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