World Builder: Frank Spotnitz on Creating Complex TV Series

World Builder: Frank Spotnitz on Creating Complex TV Series

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Last night we attended the Frank Spotnitz event at the Writer’s Guild Foundation.  Spotnitz spoke with Neil Landau, a professor of screenwriting at UCLA School of Film and Television and a television trailblazer in his own right.  Spotnitz opened up about most recently executive producing and developing Amazon’s most viewed series, “The Man in the High Castle.”  He also reflects on his time working on shows like “The X-Files,” “Hunted,” “The Lone Gunman,” and “Millennium.”

Here are some of the main takeaways from this excellent panel.

You can never be ambitious enough.  Spotnitz emphasized the importance of aiming big.  He suggested that if you set out only to write a good script, you have failed.  If you set out to write a great script, you will be lucky to end up with something decent.  He stressed the importance of setting your sights high on each project and to never settle for “good enough.”

The harder you work, the more energy you have to keep going.  Much like the advice above, Spotnitz suggests that ambition encourages results and to stop writing is to atrophy.  He compared writing to exercise: it’s hard work, but you feel so much better when it’s over.  Once you are fired up about an idea, follow that energy and keep translating it on the page.  Spotnitz reflected on his experience writing for “The X-Files” and how he gave everything he had to the show when he was hired on as a staff writer and was ultimately rewarded with a promotion to executive producer by season four.

It’s so much nicer to work with nice people.  We think this lesson speaks for itself!

Emotion first, intellect second.  Spotnitz highlighted the importance of discovering the emotional truth of characters before anything else.  He reminded us that it’s difficult to find a sense of truth in a story without an emotional connection to the characters.  Everything else will follow.

Coincidences are okay, as long as they make things harder for your protagonist.  Speaking to the themes of fate and destiny found in “the Man in the High Castle,” Spotnitz discussed how coincidence as a plot device best fits into a narrative.  Characters encountering one helpful coincidence after another does not provoke a sense of hard work or earned reward, which may make characters less relatable for a viewer.

Keep going forward fearlessly.  Spotnitz spoke about the awareness he had for the Amazon platform and that he expected viewers to binge-watch the show.  He said this informed his creative choices in the writing process and that he recognized a heightened need to be daring.  He realized that a repetitive or cyclical style of storytelling would get stale on this platform, which motivated him to be fearless in his narrative choices.

You can own your copyright abroad.  As an ex-patriot and an owner of a London-based production company, Frank Spotnitz had illuminating insight into international industry affairs.  He reminded us that in the US selling a script means selling your underlying rights.  In the UK (and many, many other countries) you retain the rights to your IP, which essentially means you are leasing your script to be made.

Look out for Frank Spotnitz’s forthcoming show, “Medici: Masters of Florence.”

Neil Landau’s new book, TV Outside the Box, was just released.  You can check out his website for more information.

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