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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 16

A subtle but important turning-point arrived for our proto-series, The Jellybean Odyssey, when, in a story meeting held, as was now usual, in the glass-encased meeting-room at the new Omni-Films suite in Gastown, the CBC drama executive David Pears declared that Hart Hanson's rewrite of our pilot script did not have the "Jellybean" feel.

This meant that Pears was acknowledging that there was a special, unique quality to the writing--maybe perhaps especially shown in the kid dialogue--that Warren Easton and I brought to the script that gave it its distinctive and unique style. Now Pears wanted to roll back to our last draft, and get Warren and me to do whatever further tinkering was required. I don't recall now whether Hart was himself present at that meeting, but whether he was or wasn't, this could only have been felt as a slap in the face to him. The story editor in a TV show represents "management" as far as the writers are concerned, and to be undermined or cut off at the knees by management is painful and abnormal. It's a stab in the back--or maybe in the head, from above.

Of course, from the point of view of me and Warren, the creators, Pears was only stating the obvious. As the show's creators, we knew it best and understood exactly how to create its special "flavor". Hart, although he was one of the best TV writers in the country, had not in fact been engaged to rewrite our script because he was a better writer than we were, but because he was part of management's own picked team and therefore would be more ready to take direction from the network. The show's creators, who had suffered and starved for two years now in "development hell", would not simply take orders from the network; we cared deeply about the show and would push back when we felt the executives were demanding things that would make the show weaker and less original. In simple terms, Warren and I were not on the network payroll (were hardly on any payroll), and did not see ourselves as "reporting to" the CBC or its executives.

Notionally we reported to Michael Chechik, the producer. But Michael was the first to admit that he was not bringing a personal creative vision to this series; that was our job. We thought of the ideas, and we wrote them. And right now, this show didn't exist in any other form but writing. At this point, Warren and I were the show. Michael valued our vision of the show and also the way we wrote, and was not inclined to pass on whatever pressure he might be getting from Pears to make us change this or that. At most, if he was getting any such pressure, he would tell us about it candidly and ask us what we thought we should do about it. In his hesitant, questioning, but fast-talking way, he would work through how to respond to the latest network demand or request.

In any case, somewhere in here, probably spring 1991, the CBC took the big step of ordering the production of the pilot.

After pumping nickels and dimes into the writers to output scripts for two years, this was the moment of committing to bigger money. The pilot episode of The Jellybean Odyssey would eventually cost about $500,000 to produce. Even though, in the Canadian scheme of television production, the CBC's share was only 1/3 of that, it was still significant money, and took everyone a large and hard-to-revoke step closer to producing a series.

Of course we were ecstatic. It had been three years since the production of "What's Wrong with Neil?". Now we were having another original show produced, entirely of our own creation, and, with a continuing series riding on the outcome, the stakes were much higher.

Now, after sitting in endless story and network meetings, and advancing small sums to keep the writers alive, Michael would get to put on his producer hat properly and make a show. It had to be done carefully, since many staffing decisions now, such as casting, would have consequences for the continuing series. He had to find a team that could make a show worthy of all the creativity and effort that had gone into its creation.

But summer 1991 was coming on, and Vancouver was a lovely place to shoot film. Once again we could enjoy the pleasure of visiting film sets close to home to watch busy people shoot the lines we had written. As far as I was concerned, we'd more than earned it.

To be continued...

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 15

With the arrival of 1991, Warren Easton and I were again tinkering with the pilot script for The Jellybean Odyssey, and with the other scripts we had written (I believe by that time we had also written the next two episodes, "No Fair", in which our hero Jay is "tried" by a kid-tribunal in his new fantasy world for being "different", and "Out of the Woods", in which he becomes involved in a conflict between a Robin Hood-like band of "outlaw" kids and the quasi-police state of the distant and mysterious Brad).

Warren and I were eager to explore these overtly "political" scenarios of our kid-world, and deliberately turned toward issues of justice, power relationships, and civil administration, shown in the distorting (but clarifying) mirror of our fantasy-kid-land which we called the downworld. While I can't be sure, I believe that this path satisfied CBC head of programming Ivan Fecan's wish for a "relevant" show with a "sociological mission". Our show definitely was not simply "a bunch of kids running around doing stuff".

However, the new tinkering with the material was not bringing us much extra revenue; that had been tapped long since, along with some advances against future work for our show. With my two mortgages, I was heading deeper into debt and had to find a way to scare up more income. Kimmie was of course still working full-time at ICBC; I, the big-time TV creator, was bringing in next to nothing.

One place I turned was to the CBC itself. I found out that the new junior drama executive in Vancouver, Linda Coffey, was responsible for reading and responding to unsolicited submissions from would-be scriptwriters, and that she retained a few readers to go through the projects and write brief reports on them. Probably after one of our Jellybean Odyssey meetings, I asked Linda whether I could maybe be one of her readers.

Linda, recognizing my predicament, readily agreed, and in March 1991 I received my first sheaf of scripts from The Wall: a set of shelves at one end of her office, covered with submissions. From then on, each Friday I would drop off my reader's reports (these documents are called "coverage" in L.A.), pick up a fresh set of scripts, and collect a check for $150 at CBC's payroll counter.

(The scripts I read, by the way, were almost all shockingly bad--not even the least bit professional.)

Another effort I made to keep body and soul together was to approach a newly formed scriptwriting fund set up by the Canadian pay-TV channel called First Choice (the fund was called the Foundation to Underwrite New Drama, or "FUND"--cute, huh?). I'd heard a radio interview with someone who had attended a school for butlers in England, and was now the butler of a rich American family. This had intrigued me, so I looked into the school, and came up with an idea for a kid's movie that I called My Dad the Butler, about a divorced dad who attends such a school and winds up as the butler to a female pop star. While the star visits Vancouver to record an album, the butler's 13-year-old daughter tries to reunite with him--an impossibility in his new post, or so it seems...

I got Michael Chechik to write a letter saying that if this script got written, he'd be willing to produce it, then I sent the proposal to FUND. They responded with a go-ahead to write an outline on the idea. Yahoo! I had another project in development! This project would later go on to a story treatment, and would bring me about $8,000 or so in writing income, all told--a lifesaver. As I told Michael: "the CBC is going to be calling story meetings for our show, and I won't be able to come because I'll be delivering pizzas."

Reading other people's scripts and working on a butler story were keeping my head above water in 1991.

Another thing that happened that year was that the CBC, meaning the local drama-development exec David Pears, got our story editor Hart Hanson to write a draft of our pilot script. Thinking back, I can't quite remember the exact reason why. Was it that Warren and I were "busy" working on other scripts or outlines for the show at the time? Or was it simply a "normal" step toward getting the show ready to shoot, by having its story editor rewrite the writers' material?

For this is how TV series are done: some scripts may be written by writers on staff, in the story department, and some by freelance writers. In either case, the scripts are rewritten by the story editor--who is the head of the story department--so that they all have the same "voice" and conform to the requirements of the series, which the story editor is supposed to know better than the contributing writers. Scripts also change as shooting progresses, and the story editor normally makes those changes.

Hart was already our story editor through the development process, and had provided much valuable and friendly help, in effect teaching us important aspects of TV writing. As a writer he himself was excellent and fast. But Warren and I saw no need for anyone to be rewriting our pilot: it was already good--excellent in fact; even brilliant. We saw this as a step toward removing creative control of the series from the hands of the creators--and we didn't like it.

But no one asked us what we thought about it. We may have created the show and written the scripts, but to Pears and the CBC we were newbies and amateurs, and would have to take a backseat to the "pros" as the show got closer to production.

No, we didn't like it one bit.

To be continued...

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 14

I think it was in about November 1990 that Phil Keatley left his position as head of CBC Vancouver's drama department and was replaced by David Pears, an executive returning west from Toronto--a move that, in CBC terms and in Canadian corporate and government terms generally, could only be called a demotion. Pears (and I call him "Pears" because that's what he called himself: when he called you on the phone, he'd identify himself by saying, "It's Pears") had been involved in the production of the then-flagship CBC drama Street Legal, often referred to by those of us in the Canadian TV biz as T.O. Law, since it was widely seen as an imitation of the highly successful Steve Bochko series L.A. Law in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Hart Hanson, the story editor for our developing Jellybean Odyssey show, had outgrown his junior post at CBC Drama in Vancouver, in demand elsewhere as a freelance TV writer, a story editor for TV series in production, and also as a professor of creative writing at UBC (whew!), and had left, to be replaced by Linda Coffey.

I don't remember now whether it was our first meeting with "Pears and Coffey", but I think it was: another summit-meeting to talk about the show, this time held, more formally, in the boardroom at CBC Vancouver. Again I (no doubt) packed my attache case and put on jacket and tie (although this time I no doubt also took transit to get there; who needs the stress?). Warren and Michael were there, of course, and possibly Hart, maybe even Phil Keatley. We took our places at the long conference table, sitting in chairs with absurdly high backs, furniture that felt like some kind of modernistic throwback to a medieval dining-hall.

We had all introduced ourselves. In fact I had met Pears years before, in the 1970s, when he had come to visit my father one day in West Van. I didn't remember anything of his appearance, only an impression of someone who thought rather highly of himself and who regarded his issues and problems as very important. Now, in 1990, he came across as an older man, short, with a long gray ponytail and drooping mustache, and very casually dressed in things like jeans, huaraches, and untucked shirts left open to the chest. If smoking had still been permitted indoors, he would have chainsmoked his way through the day.

Pears ran the meeting. His style was folksy, soft-spoken, and, I thought, rather long-winded. He praised our show and its concept, talking about the "arcs" of the series (TV-writing speak for the overarching stories that continue beyond individual episodes) and comparing this with his own experience working on Street Legal, a show which, he claimed, had A, B, and even C arcs running through it--an example of subtlety and depth. (For the record: Warren and I did not think too much of Street Legal as a show; we really did see it as a "me too" imitation of L.A. Law.)

But, although the concept and the writing were on the whole very good, the CBC execs back in Toronto, having examined the material, had discovered that it had a Flaw. And this Flaw was what was holding back the show from being as good as it could be--and as good as it needed to be in order to get a production order. If we could find a way to address the Flaw, then we could very likely have a TV show that could indeed be produced and broadcast. Pears saw his first task with this project as being the correction of the Flaw.

I should've counted how many times Pears said the word Flaw; it would have made a great statistic as part of the lore of the show. It was quite a few times. At length Pears revealed what the Flaw was that had been discovered through the perspicacity of the CBC execs: the Flaw lay in the writing of the upworld.

The upworld, as I've mentioned, was the term we gave to the parts of the show set in the world of waking life--the world where Jay lay unconscious in his coma, watched over by his mother and his friends Donna and Keith. Warren and I had wanted this world to have as much impact, if possible, as the downworld of Jay's fantasy-adventure. We wanted to be gritty and real with how comas actually happen--their real effects and symptoms, and the real methods of treating them, when done in the advanced and creative ways then being developed. We wanted the audience to have to work as hard to follow the upworld coma-therapy adventure as it would to follow the downworld adventure. We didn't want a "cute" or soap-opera-type coma; we wanted to do real coma--scary coma--and dish that up to our kid audience. Why not? They're only one skateboard-accident away from the same situation, after all.

It appeared now that this vision was not flying with the network--anyway, not with David Pears. The next push of rewriting would involve mainly our upworld stories.

After the meeting, Warren and I felt a bit depressed about Pears's assault on our upworld, but agreed that it could have been worse--an assault on the downworld story. After all, when a new executive comes in, they have to make their mark somehow. It seemed the core of the show was being left intact. Pears's enthusiasm for the show idea seemed genuine, and I believed that he saw it as a show that could and would get produced. So it would be worth the extra effort. He had not come to kill it.

Another thing: when I met Pears before the meeting, I immediately recognized him as the figure described to me by the psychic Sarah Scott Simonson: short, egotistical, powerful. We would have to watch out for him. Not that there was a lot we could do, besides say, "yes sir, yes sir, three bags full..."

To be continued...

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 13

The upshot for Warren and me of our meeting with CBC's head of programming Ivan Fecan was that we had to do more work on our would-be series, The Jellybean Odyssey, before he would give us the go-ahead to produce the pilot episode. I don't remember exactly what that extra work was, but I believe it may have been at this time that scripts for the next two episodes were commissioned, and no doubt we had to beef up the other episode ideas further and flesh out the proto-series-bible. Scripts are cheap; the network wanted more security in the project before actually causing film to be shot.

As Phil Keatley, the executive heading up CBC Vancouver's drama department, expressed it after one of our meetings there: "This show, if it goes ahead, is going to cost something upward of a quarter-million dollars an episode. They're going to say yes slowly."

So the result of the big meeting was disappointing in the sense that we didn't get a green light for making the pilot, but it was good in the sense that the project was alive, and indeed Warren and I got a bit more work out of it and could look forward to some more script fees. There was hope that we could turn the work around quickly and get the pilot into production for the summer, when the good filming weather would be here.

But within a couple of weeks of the meeting, I fell sick. At first I thought it was simply a cold, but I acquired a high fever that I couldn't control, and was diagnosed with pneumonia. I spent most of February 1990 lying on my sofa, reading, drawing the snow piled high on my back balcony, watching TV, and climbing slowly and weakly up to bed each night.

This was a setback. But I don't know whether it was a decisive setback in the sense of (apparently) killing any sense of urgency in the network to develop our series. However, for that reason or some other, this is what appeared to happen. Warren and I came to understand more exactly what Hart Hanson, our story editor, had meant early on when he referred to "development hell".

I'm trying to think of how I would define and characterize development hell. First of all, development hell is experienced primarily by writers, and secondarily by producers. The hellishness consists in doing seemingly endless revisions of existing material--long past the point when you've cashed your last check for writing it--and waiting long, long times for feedback from the network, all with no guarantee that the project will ever, in the end, actually be picked up. With no production date even tentatively in mind, the senior network executives, who are all earning six-figure salaries in any case, can let the project float along while they mainly attend to more pressing concerns.

Warren and I met here at my house to work. Often we would walk down the hill to have lunch at Fran's Cafe--a cheap Japanese-Canadian diner near the foot of Lonsdale Avenue that we dubbed the Development Diner: where writers in development could afford to eat. Neither of us had a real job--at least I didn't--although I did have two mortgages plus a personal loan to finance the purchase of my house three years earlier. Money started growing tight, and Warren and I were driven to borrowing money--that is, getting "advances" against future work--from our producer Michael in order to keep going. (He had a sideline of selling real estate.)

Spring passed. Summer. The long days and beautiful filming weather started to fade, still with no breath of confirmation from the CBC about whether they would be wanting our show or not. The writers tightened their belts and looked ahead to another winter.

One day in September 1990 I paid a visit to a psychic named Sarah Scott Simonson. She lived nearby in Lynnmour, so I rode the new (cheap) bike I had just bought down the long hill to her townhouse. Sarah was a very pleasant, ordinary-seeming middle-aged woman who just happened to have psychic abilities. Kimmie had consulted her during a psychic fair held on the PNE grounds, and was impressed with her. I thought, what the heck--I wonder about my future too.

In her little consulting-room I asked her about my TV show: would it get made?

"Yes," she said, "it will get done, it will get shown. It will be successful. Someone's going to come along who will help it get done. He'll be shorter--a powerful person. Very direct. He'll help you, but be careful of him. There's ego there--and envy for what you're doing. Just be careful."

"All right," I said. "I will."

Elated by Sarah's prediction, I rode energetically back up the long hill, again feeling that the wind of destiny was behind me, and that our TV show would finally find its audience.

To be continued...

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Monday, February 25, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 12

The 1990s arrived, and with them my 31st birthday.

Apparently Ivan Fecan, then CBC's head of programming (now CEO of the CTV Television Network), had not read our package on his skiing trip after all, and got to it only when he returned to the office in the new year. Later in January he was planning to make a trip west to visit CBC's "regional" offices, including Vancouver. Meanwhile, via Michael Chechik, our producer, we heard an early glimmering of Fecan's response to our show: it lacked "allegory".

A meeting was set up so that we on The Jellybean Odyssey team could get direct feedback from Fecan while he was visiting Vancouver. We were to convene at the CBC building on Hamilton Street at, I think, 10:00 a.m. on Monday 22 January. I put on a jacket and tie, packed the script, proto-series-bible, and episode ideas into my attache case, and joined the other commuters driving over town to work--a most unfamiliar experience to me, who had not had to commute to a workplace since I'd moved to North Vancouver in 1985.

The meeting was set not in a conference-room, but in a "green room"--a lounge used by performers before going on to a soundstage. There was fairly elaborate security to get inside the brutal concrete mass of the Crown Corporate building (bomb threats due to their programming, possibly). I made it to the room, along with Warren, Michael, Hart Hanson, and I believe Phil Keatley (still the head of drama development in Vancouver at the time--help me out Warren if you remember differently). In came Angela Bruce, CBC's head of children's programming, tall, English, with pearl-colored hair and a cane, with her boss Ivan Fecan, a relaxed man, just a few years older than Warren and me, who had acquired quasi-Wunderkind status for having worked in L.A. with Fred Silverman, a famous TV executive. We all shook hands, Fecan dropped onto one of the modernistic foam seats, and we got going.

"I like this project," said Fecan, "it's a very creative idea. But as I read the script, I found myself wondering, what's the allegory here?"

There was a brief silence, but I'd prepared for this moment.

"We heard about that," I said, "so I looked up allegory in the dictionary."

"Don't quote the dictionary at me!" said Fecan with a laugh.

"It talks about using symbolic figures to make general expressions about the human condition--"

"I call it allegory," said Fecan, "but what I'm asking is, what does this show mean? What's its relevance? What is its sociological mission?"

A much longer silence fell on the room. Sitting beside Michael, I could sense his mouth working a couple of times, but nothing coming out. I realized that if anyone was to rise to this challenge, it should be the show's creators. I sensed that here was the crisis--the crunch. Again it was I who broke the silence. I had no idea what I was going to say.

"Our vision of the show," I said, leaning forward and sculpting something, maybe our idea, with my hands, "is not so much sociological...as intensely psychological. Here we have a kid going into the depths of his mind, and finding a world of adventure there. He can see his relationships there in a new way: his friends, his family, his missing father--relationships that everyone has, but doesn't have this chance to kind of explore this way..."

In fact, I'm not exactly sure what I said after that first sentence, but it was along those lines. My basic thrust was that the vision for the show was not "sociological"--outward, but "psychological", inward, and that this "inward" is just as universal as the the "outward". But more than that I just wanted to respond: to return the volley and stick up for the show as being meaningful and important.

With the ice thus broken, other people chimed in with their views--Angela, Hart--that the show did indeed have the characteristics that Fecan was looking for. I recall Hart sitting with a sheaf of papers on his lap, lifting through them theatrically, and saying sotto voce, "It's there--it's there already!"

At length, Fecan cut off the discussion.

"Well, it's not there yet. I don't want a show that's just a bunch of kids running around doing stuff. I think we need to see another draft of this."

With that he was up and heading for the door. In the doorway, he turned to look me in the eye, and said with a smile, "You look like a deer caught in the headlights."

He turned and left with Angela.

At that moment I became sure we had a series.

To be continued...

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Friday, February 22, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 11

"Guys, you're gonna hate me for this."

Thus Hart Hanson, the CBC story editor supervising the writing of the pilot script for The Jellybean Odyssey. He was close to Warren and me in age, but much more active and successful in his writing career. Enthusiastic and boyish in his high-topped sneakers, Hart, I thought, should be played by Dana Carvey in the movie version of our project.

"But you've got to get there sooner--in act two."

Warren Easton and I had written a draft of "The Fall", episode 1 of The Jellybean Odyssey, in which 11-year-old Jay Ziegler, while trying to retrieve his dead father's telescope from a tree-fort in a wooded ravine, falls, bumps his head, and lapses into a coma. In our first stab, we figured we'd save the best for last and only show Jay's new life in the dreamworld in act 3 (we had decided to write our half-hour in three acts--that is, with two commercial breaks--rather than in the two acts more common with a half-hour TV show). Our structure was, basically: act 1, Jay bonks his head; act 2, doctors try to save Jay's life while his mom and friends worry; act 3, we discover that Jay is not as unconscious as he seems--but is in fact alive and on a new adventure...

My recollection is that we presented this story structure in the outline for the episode, which was approved, but when we actually wrote the script from it, Hart felt it didn't work. This was an important early lesson: just because your outline is approved, doesn't mean your story has made it. Beware!

Hart, a writer, was well aware of what a problem he was setting us. In order to show Jay arriving in the "downworld" in act 2, we would have to have a whole new downworld story worked out--the bulk of our pilot episode. Act 2 would be more of an intercut story between the efforts to treat Jay in the "upworld", and his new and confusing adventure in the downworld.

"Sorry, guys."

Warren and I went back to the drawing-board. We had to find a way to stuff more story into our downworld in this pilot.

In fact, it proved to be not too hard. In our first draft, we had already conceived the idea of showing Jay in his new environment, in the clutches of a boy-gang who were in fact a transformed version of the tree-fort gang that had stolen his telescope in the upworld. They look different down here, and Jay doesn't remember where he's come from. But now they have him captive, and in fact are going to put him through an initiation that involves dropping him from a Mad Max-style contraption, consisting of a modified shopping-cart, into a swimming-pool. Jay has his first moment of recognition of something when he notices that the gang leader, Flash, clutches the telescope that belongs to his father.

We realized that we didn't have to junk this idea, which we liked. We just had to show how Jay gets into this predicament. So we came up with an "arrival" scene in the downworld. From the very moment Jay bonks his head at the end of act 1, we cut to a confusing scene of Jay riding downward in a creepy freight elevator, even as he is lying unconscious on the ground in the ravine. Then, baffled, he emerges from the elevator to find himself in a strange, ruined landscape, where oddly dressed ragamuffins are at some kind of a rally. It is in this scene where Jay sees Flash clutching his father's telescope, and resolves to get it back--the action that was left incomplete back in the upworld. Jay attacks Flash, grabs the scope, and runs for it. Flash and his henchmen catch up with Jay, capture him, and take him back to their clubhouse, where they string him up over the pool.

There: done!

Warren and I put a lot of thought into (and logged many hours of discussion about) what our downworld would be like. What we wanted to see was a world not merely lacking adults, but that had been abandoned by adults. That is, we imagined this world as being like our own, but with all its buildings and institutions deserted--like an evacuated city into which kids come and take over. We saw it as a post-apocalyptic setting, rather than as a "fantasy" setting, such as Oz.

Another important influence I forgot to mention in my post of two days ago: Lord of the Flies. We liked the "edge" and creepiness of William Golding's classic: how kids are treated not as cute little moppets, but as fully functional humans operating from a reduced knowledge-base. We wanted our show to have that kind of an edge.

Another idea that grew gradually (as I recall) for us: treating our downworld as a kind of kid version of a police state. If there was any one element that Warren and I thought was best about our concept, it was probably this. Who expects kids, when left to themselves, to form a police state? We did! Isn't it a logical outflow, after all, of schoolyard bullying and sibling tyrannies? Kids are authoritarian by nature! This was maybe what made our show truly original, we thought--the idea was brilliant, if we said so ourselves.

As things developed, a tension would arise between the show's art department, who wanted to create a "fantasy" show, liberating their imaginations to make fantastic sets, and the writer-creators, who wanted to set the episodes on derelict suburban streets and in deserted shopping-malls. The designers felt this a wasted opportunity--they could go nuts with this idea, given the chance! In the end, I think the result came out about right. Warren and I were probably too literal in our vision of a postapocalyptic, depopulated downworld, but we kept pulling the art department back toward a more grounded, recognizable downworld, one that had many imaginative, dreamlike flourishes. The result was unique, and over all, very good.

Warren and I hustled to get the script and other materials ready, for I think they were all supposed to be ready in early December 1989 for the desk of Ivan Fecan, CBC's head of programming and the executive with the authority to greenlight our project. He was apparently going on a skiing vacation and wanted to have the package in hand. We wrote, rewrote, polished, and had it ready. Hart was happy with it, Angela Bruce in Toronto was happy, and therefore Michael, our producer, was happy as well. The material was bundled off to Fecan, and we could take a breather for Christmas. The fate of our show would be decided early in the new decade.

To be continued...

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

again with the teeth

Today again I head over town to visit the dentist (regular teeth-cleaning this time). That means my morning schedule is crowded with different things, and my next blog-post will have to wait.

Here's to dental hygiene!


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 10

Summer 1989: The CBC had expressed its interest in developing the half-hour kids'-adventure series that Warren Easton and I had proposed called The Jellybean Odyssey about an 11-year-old boy who enters a coma to discover himself in a new world populated only by other kids.

I worked out the terms of a contract with Michael Chechik, our producer. In the first place, the network wanted to see some descriptive material (the basis of a "bible", the detailed description of the concept, characters, situation, structure, and other "rules" for a TV series used by writers to guide their work), a pilot script, and ideas for 12 more episodes to make up a first season, the first few of which were to be developed in more detail than the rest. Fantastic! Delighted!

To get going on it, we'd have to get Warren back down from firefighting in the Yukon. Plus I was to be married to Kimmie (in our own house) on 26 August. So we probably didn't really get going until September. And now that I was "really" in show business, I couldn't be developing my own TV show as a moonlighting effort, so once again I quit my day-job at ICBC. Warren and I would work at my house, which was otherwise empty during the day.

The writing would be supervised by Hart Hanson, a young writer (our age) who was on staff with CBC Drama in Vancouver. The development as a whole would be supervised by David Pears, a CBC executive newly reassigned from Toronto and an old associate of my father's. I'm sure there were meeting in which Warren and I were asked to describe our "vision" of the show and where we saw it going. Warren and I, who were both "idea" men, were pleased to provide whatever we could in this vein.

We got to work. Our concept was wide-open: a fantasy world in which we could make anything happen that we wanted. What did we want? What kinds of adventures should our guy have? How would he set about the task of getting home? What would the kids be doing that he encounters in this strange place? What would be happening to the kid's, well, body in the waking world where people would presumably be treating him for his coma?

We tussled with these questions and many others. We quickly realized that we couldn't simply have our guy wandering aimlessly in search of his home, knocking on doors in this strange new world. He would need to have a sense of destination, of quest. What could we have him heading toward?

In stages we came to see that the notion of a goal for our hero could also provide structure to our imaginary world. We imagined that our guy's father had died when he was younger, and that this father--named Brad--was now, in his teenage form, revered as the leader of this place inhabited only by kids. Yes! Brad could live at some remote and hard-to-reach spot--The Tower--and our guy would journey toward this powerful and mysterious figure (unaware that it was his father) to see whether Brad could help him return home.

If you look closely, you'll see that this storyline is essentially the same as that of The Wizard of Oz--one of our inspirations in creating the show. (Our other main influences were Star Trek and Mad Max--and, unconsciously, I think, Stand by Me.)

We were excited by these ideas, for they gave our show a mission, a purpose. It would provide a skeleton along which to arrange the adventures of our epic quest.

Warren and I were conscious of, and excited by, the mythological potential of our story. We thought we might model our quest on that of Jason and the Argonauts for the Golden Fleece, with our plucky heroes arriving at some new hair-raising problem in each episode. We even made our hero's name Jason. (In our scribbled notes we always abbreviated his name as "J", and soon started calling him J for short. Eventually we figured that we might as well just call the character Jay and have done with it.) I bought a copy of Robert Graves's telling of The Golden Fleece, and we also got other sources of possible story ideas, such as the collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales. We had to come up with 13 great story ideas.

At the same time we studied comas and the therapies used for them. We made trips to the UBC library and even took a trip to Seattle to visit a state-of-the-art coma-therapy facility there. (The staff were very helpful, even excited at having these "TV people" arrive to study them--and even providing us with an excellent boxed lunch from Nordstrom's.) We wanted to make our "upworld" (we developed the terminology of "upworld" and "downworld" to refer respectively to the waking world and fantasy world of our story--terminology that we would use in the scripts to denote where each scene was taking place) as realistic as possible. We wanted to give a sense of the trauma of coma and the eerie, long path back.

Our ideas were greeted mainly with enthusiasm. The real test though would be in the pilot script: that's what would show what kind of a project this was. Warren and I, although we of course recognized the necessity for working out how the show was going to work and what it would look like, didn't like writing the "marketing" material and wanted to get on to scriptwriting. And soon enough it was indeed time to knuckle down and write our pilot script. It was fall 1989, and we set out to draft the "origin episode" for The Jellybean Odyssey.

To be continued...

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 9

At this stage of my story my memory is a little bit foggy. I just went up to visit Kimmie in our ensuite bathroom, where she is preparing to go to work, to ask about her memory of the evening of 20 May 1989, just a few days after my return from dathun, the month-long meditation program I had attended at the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center in Colorado. That evening, which was a Saturday, I had taken her to The Cannery restaurant down on the docks of Vancouver. There, in the parking lot, before we went inside to dinner, I asked her to marry me--catching her completely by surprise. ("Yes, of course I will," she said, astonished and delighted.) (And by the way, Kimmie's clearest memory was of what she was wearing: a short white skirt and a white jacket with polka dots and a peplum. I was in a high-quality tailored suit.)

So, in our window seat and over our delightful seafood dinner we had much to talk about--for not only were we now going to be married, but Warren's and my TV-series idea about a boy in a coma had taken a step forward. It's the exact step that I'm not totally clear on now--but I'm pretty sure.

Warren and I had pitched the boy-in-coma idea to Michael Chechik, the producer we were associated with (I'm not sure whether we had yet given the project a title). As I recall, we pitched it because Michael had heard the CBC was looking specifically for kid programming, and wanted to know whether we had any ideas. And of course, we did have an idea--so we told it to him.

I have a vague memory of talking about this in Michael's office at Omni-Films (again, Warren, if you're out there and have more concrete memories, feel free to comment). We would have described the basic idea, which as yet did not have any detail: just that a suburban 11-year-old boy falls out of a tree-fort, bonks his head, lapses into a coma, and suddenly finds himself in a world populated only by kids--including two of his friends in transformed guise. Amnesiac about how he got there, he starts searching for his way home--which also means consciousness.

Michael loved the idea, and would have peppered us with fast-talking questions to find out more, where the story would go, etc. We didn't really know yet--hadn't worked on the idea since about January, when we'd let it drop to focus on other things.

I believe what happened next was that Michael pitched the idea immediately to a drama executive at CBC Vancouver, probably Phil Keatley, a longtime producer of The Beachcombers. He liked the idea right away too, and told Michael he needed to pitch it to CBC's executive in charge of children's programming, Angela Bruce. He might have an opportunity at the upcoming Banff Television Festival, which Angela planned to attend. With "What's Wrong with Neil?" in competition, Michael was going to be there too. So I think it was on that very day, Satuday 20 May 1989, that Michael had called me to say we'd got our first "yes" from the CBC, and to ask me for some more material on the show idea for him to be able to pitch it at Banff.

With that "yes" and Kimmie's "yes" to my proposal, it was a pretty giddy evening.

Warren and I got together to try to flesh out the idea more. One issue was the title: what would we call it? We were thinking that the show was an odyssey--a heroic return home through many adventures--but just calling it The Odyssey didn't seem right. It might be assumed that we were doing Homer's Odyssey, plus there were any number of other shows out there already called Odyssey of one kind or another. Also, it didn't seem like a very "kid" title. How many little tykes even knew the word odyssey?

"We could add something to make it more 'kid'," said Warren. "The Skateboard Odyssey, The Gumball Odyssey--something like that."

Yes: I liked that. Spouting "kid" terms, we came up with The Jellybean Odyssey, and felt that clicked. It was an odyssey, but it was a kid odyssey--and conveyed a certain attitude, as well as creativity and mystery. Yes, that was it.

Under this title we typed up some briefing notes and gave these to Michael. Warren and I, in day-jobs and financially stretched, couldn't go to Banff; Michael would have to represent the project there.

Soon Michael was back and we got the story. He had indeed been able to meet Angela Bruce, and had verbally pitched The Jellybean Odyssey to her.

"She loved it!" said Michael. "She thought the idea was great--but she wants to see paper on it. She told me to send some material for her desk in Toronto. So can you guys come up with that?"


Later I heard from Hart Hanson, who was at Banff, that The Jellybean Odyssey was the buzz of the festival. Its name was being whispered among people there: "What's this Jellybean Odyssey? There's no paper on it anywhere!" (By the way, this is a textbook example for how to generate "heat" around a project: hint at its existence and that it's great, but don't let anyone know too much--create thirst for it. Create a sense that there are insiders who know more about it than you do...)

I recall typing up about 3 pages of material--we didn't have any more. We called our character Billy. I don't remember whether we yet had the idea that his father was dead, and he thought that he could find his home by finding his dad. That was probably a later development. We did have the idea of the kid-only world, and that it would be self-organized into "clubs"--kids sticking together around common interests and activities, with their own politics, justice, etc., and with the older teenagers lording it over the rest like babysitters who never have to account for their actions.

I gave the pages to Michael and he sent them to Toronto. On 1 July 1989--another Saturday--he called me.

"I just heard from Angela Bruce," he said. "The CBC wants to put The Jellybean Odyssey into development."

My skin came up in goosebumps. I couldn't believe it. A national network wanted to put my TV show into development. In show-business terms, I was becoming even more "real". I started trying to phone Warren, who I believe was up in the Yukon fighting forest fires. I had to tell him that we were moving from TV writers to TV series creators.

To be continued...

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Monday, February 18, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 8

"What's Wrong with Neil?", the half-hour comedy written by Warren Easton and me for the CBC anthology series Family Pictures, was aired in Canada on 9 March 1989. Kimmie and I held a broadcast party here, inviting our friends over to watch TV.

It was an exciting, thrilling experience--another landmark in the career of the film writer: actually seeing your produced work exhibited for the mass audience. Best of all is if you're pleased with it yourself, and have a chance to be among that audience while they're watching it. Everyone I've ever seen watching "What's Wrong with Neil?" has agonized with the hero when his tender love-note is yanked away by the class clown and read mockingly to his peers. People cringe (but in a good way). Then, through the rest of the show, they laugh and are engaged with the story.

The elation was much like what I felt at the 1976 B.C. Student Film Festival, when a film I'd made with my friends, "The Device," a 30-minute silent 8mm Cold War farce, brought much laughter to the audience composed of our competitors and their families ("The Device" won our category of Best High School Film). All that work--and there was plenty--finally pays off: you get to sit back and enjoy the audience's enjoyment of the show. You can't beat it.

Later on, when The Odyssey was in production, our story editor at the time, Hart Hanson, who was already a very successful TV writer (and is now a writer-producer in Hollywood of shows such as Bones and Joan of Arcadia), said that he had not yet had that experience. Working as a "hired gun" on other people's shows, he was making lots of money, but never had he written an episode that he felt he could call up his relatives to urge them to tune in and watch.

For Warren and me it was the opposite: we weren't making much money, but we were making shows of our own, that we felt good about inviting people to watch.

"What's Wrong with Neil?" was one of the best of the 16 half-hours produced for Family Pictures. That's not just my opinion: it was one of only three of the shows that was bought by the BBC for broadcast in Britain, and it also was accepted for competition at the Banff Television Festival that June. Incredibly, "What's Wrong with Neil?" was selected with four or five other shows from around the world to compete for "Best One-Off Drama Under 60 Minutes"--a category that included shows like a one-hour British drama starring Alan Bates and Maggie Smith. Our little CBC half hour!

Michael Chechik, our producer, was very pleased and excited. He too wanted to land a series to produce, and talked up the idea of using "What's Wrong with Neil?" as a pilot for a series. Audiences loved it and the network was happy with it--why not make more?

Warren and I were chilly to this idea. We didn't see "Neil" as a series. The North Vancouver boy faking "cholera" as a way of dealing with humiliation in front of his peers made for a great half hour, but the family situation and the characters were not otherwise special or interesting enough to power a series. No: we didn't want to just opportunistically try to stretch our half-hour idea into a whole series, which we felt would not distinguish itself from the pack. We wanted to offer something special, unique--something with lots of "wow" factor.

"We need to have an idea that's a series right from the start," we said.

We already had come up with the boy-in-a-coma idea in December 1987, but because I was worried that the idea was too dark for TV--especially for kids' TV--we were sitting on that and working on other ideas to run by broadcasters. Thinking it would be cool to do serious, adult, one-hour television, we were tinkering with a couple of ideas.

One, tentatively entitled OR Suite, was engendered by the fact that both Warren and I had worked (as janitors) in Vancouver hospitals. It was to be a behind-the-scenes show about the surgeons, nurses, orderlies, and other workers that make up the special team of people in a large hospital's OR suite. (Just a couple of years later, I was to start watching ER on American network TV--a massive hit.) We liked this idea and spent time creating characters and trying to determine a point of view for the story.

Another idea, which we called Paper Tigers, was about a big-city newspaper. We liked the idea of writing about hardbitten, hard-drinking journalists, even though here we didn't have personal experience of the news business. We fiddled with the idea, trying to jazz it up by adding supernatural elements, even.

Michael was willing to pitch just about anything we came up with. I recall putting together the proposal package for Paper Tigers just before I left to do a one-month meditation program in Colorado in April. We were the writers and producers of "What's Wrong with Neil?"--surely someone would want a TV series from us! We wanted to strike while the iron was still at least fairly warm.

However, when I returned from my meditation program in May I learned that no one wanted our Paper Tigers project. We needed something else. Michael said that what the CBC wanted was a show for kids--it had been looking, and not finding. Could Warren and I come up with something in that line?

Warren and I no doubt did the equivalent of look at each other significantly. Was prime time ready to watch a whole TV series about a comatose boy?

To be continued...

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Friday, February 15, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 7

Warren and I knew we wanted to create a TV series about kids--showing their world without any adults. This was essentially what Charles Schulz achieved with his Peanuts comic-strip. You never saw an adult in Peanuts, at most only a child talking with an unseen and unheard teacher, or referring to a parent. But those situations were rare. Schulz's universe was child-only, and this gave it much of its distinctive quality. Schulz dealt with universal and adult themes, but from an exclusively kid perspective.

We liked the idea of writing kid adventures from the kid point of view, of giving a kid adventure the feeling of bigness and importance it has for the kids involved. When adults are around, the kid world becomes small and immature.

We couldn't think of a way to make this happen--until December 1988. I don't remember exactly how the idea arose (Warren, if you're out there, you might recall), but we hit on the notion of putting our kid-hero into a dream-world. In a dream, you can set the parameters any way you like: if you want to banish adults, then out they go. But how do you keep your kid only in a dream-world?

By having him always asleep.

By having him in a coma.

As soon as this idea cropped up we saw its potential. I don't recall the exact place now--it might have been at the new suite of Omni-Films offices in a renovated warehouse on Water Street in Gastown, about four blocks from the old Dominion Building, where Warren and I used to meet for awhile after our respective day-jobs to work, nourishing ourselves with pastries I would bring from the Lonsdale Quay Market; or it might have been at Warren's apartment on 4th Avenue near Alma--but I remember the rush of excited talk.

Our hero goes into a coma and finds himself in a world populated only by kids: he's now in a permanent version of our summer-vacation reverie. But it's much more powerful, because now we can introduce adventures and problems that you don't face on your summer vacation--and there's no home to return to at suppertime. Yeah: our guy finds himself in this new, strange world, and doesn't know what's happened, where he is. He wants to go home to supper--but doesn't know where that is now, or how to get there. And of course, getting "home" will mean waking up from his coma! Yes! Of course! That gives our story another thing missing so far: a goal. Our story is about something now: our hero's quest to find his home--which we in the audience will know means consciousness!

You could do so much with this. His friends from the waking world could appear here in unfamiliar forms--they could be his friends down here, too, only he wouldn't realize that he knows them from waking life. And the "dream" nature of the show means we can bring in symbolic and mythical images or themes; we can bring in fear and horror--whatever we want! The "dream" lets us open the floodgates of imagination--we can really let loose!

Excitedly we talked. What would a kid-only world look like? How would it behave, if it were not only missing adults, but maybe were not even aware of adults--had not even heard of them? What if our hero were the only guy here who's ever seen an adult? Yes! That makes him more distinctive, more special and weird in this other world. The kids down here would have their own politics, their own "institutions", their own justice! We, the audience, would learn about it as our hero does, while he explores this strange place.

And meanwhile, in the waking world, our hero's family and friends would be watching over him, trying to get him to wake up. Stimuli from that world might leak down to his dreamworld in transformed guise.

Yes, yes--it was a fantastic idea. Exciting! But as we talked about it over the coming days and weeks, I felt a certain pessimism set in.

"How can you do a show about someone in a coma?" I said. "What network will want that?"

Warren felt that was not a concern. After all, most of the show would be in the dreamworld, where our hero would be alive and well. Yes, I thought, but comas are a downer: they're sad and depressing. We certainly wouldn't want to treat the coma as something comedic; indeed, we'd want to treat it as realistically as possible. But the more realistic we are with the coma, the more dark and un-kidlike the show becomes. So I thought. I started to feel that the idea would be a tough sell, especially as a kids' show.

Therefore, in those dark winter days of 1989, while Warren remained bullish on our boy-in-coma idea, my pessimism caused us to shelve it for the time being to try to come up with other ideas that might be more salable. Our mood was still up: "What's Wrong with Neil?" was about to be broadcast--another milestone for us. I had just turned 30, and felt I had arrived at a career I had long wanted: to be making TV shows of my own.

Warren and I kept at it, meeting in the dim, deserted, and now stylish offices of the Omni-Films suite in the evenings, talking, writing, and still, I'm sure, sometimes laughing. Eager for a series of our own, we kept hammering away.

To be continued...

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 6

While "What's Wrong with Neil?" was in production in early November 1988, Warren and I were bending our heads to the task of coming up with an idea for a viable TV series, so that we could provide ourselves with writing gigs on into the future. I mentioned in yesterday's post a walk we took through Grousewoods while the show was being filmed. I recall we also took one or more walks through my own neighborhood, down the mountainside from and east of Grousewoods. What kind of a TV series could we create?

We wanted to do a show about kids. We liked the innocent energy and comedic potential of kids, and felt that they are mainly poorly portrayed on TV, written condescendingly, either as cute moppets dutifully obedient to adults, or as precocious smart-asses who are really just adults in children's bodies--more like the jesting midgets at the courts of medieval monarchs than like real kids. We knew we could do better than that, and had already proven it with "What's Wrong with Neil?" It was obvious to us: most adults are not able to get into the mind of a child, to see the world again through a child's eyes. They've forgotten. Children are almost always written from the outside; we were able to write them from the inside--and that gave us a big edge, surely.

How to get a show that focuses only on kids, without having annoying adults get in the way? How do you get kids on their own? At school? But school is so structured, and is run by adults. We thought back to when we were kids on summer vacations: long days spent among friends and neighboring kids--leaving the house in the morning, playing and adventuring through the day, then returning home for dinner at night. In all that time, you lived in a kid world, having kid adventures: riding bikes; collecting pop bottles to turn into candy-buying cash; getting into pine-cone fights with unfamiliar kids in the park; sneaking into public swimming-pools; speculating on mysteries like sex; exploring woods and ravines...

Yes! That would make a cool show: kids on vacation, having adventures with other kids, with never an adult in sight. They have their own society, their own politics, their own justice. They return to the "adult" world only at dinnertime, when they become subordinate members of the family once again, awaiting the next day and another tour of freedom.

But you can't make a TV series out of kids on summer vacation. It's too random; there's no goal. It's just kids playing and fooling around. And even in a show like that, you wouldn't be able to exclude adults altogether--they'd have to be part of the action, even if only because we'd need to know about the family situation of each of our characters. The problem: how to have a world of kids without adults? We puzzled over it.

Meanwhile, "What's Wrong with Neil?" wrapped: a very pleasant and successful shoot. A short time later a wrap party was thrown at the cinematographer Rob McLachlan's house in North Vancouver. While I munched snacks from a table, I met a man I hadn't seen before: a pleasant, softspoken guy with his face set in a faint smile. We introduced ourselves, and I learned that he was Michael Conway Baker, the composer hired to do the score for the show. When I told him I was one of the writers he made a point of complimenting me on the quality of the script.

"In my work I see a lot of scripts," he said. "Very few are anywhere near the caliber of this one."

"Thank you very much," I said.

He said that the script was funny, but what he liked was that the story was so good.

"Yes," I said. "A good comedy first of all has to be a good drama."

Michael nodded emphatically. I was intrigued to learn that he was using "What's Wrong with Neil?" as a teaching tool for his students in a course at UBC on film scoring. He told me he had screened the rough cut of the show for his class, and got them to write music for it. (Michael's score for the show was very good; he's one of the premier composers in Canada, and later on would do the music for The Odyssey.)

"In that opening sequence," he said, "when the kid's running home--" (After Neil's love-note is read aloud to the other kids by his sadistic classmate, Neil runs from the school and sprints home "like he's being chased by killer bees", as we put it in the script.) "--they were writing this very romantic, Romeo-and-Juliet music." He shook his head.

Michael had seen it quite differently: he'd written a tempestuous score there, a dramatic score--something more like the New World Symphony or "Ride of the Valkyries". The music was expressing Neil's feelings--his point of view, not our point of view, the audience's. By treating the show as drama, he was liberating its comedic energy: making it funnier.

I was very pleased to meet Michael, and felt that he was a kindred spirit. It was excellent confirmation of our approach to writing.

As December 1988 drew in, "What's Wrong with Neil?" was approved for broadcast by the network and slated to be aired in March 1989. Warren and I continued to tussle with the question of how to get a TV show populated only by kids.

To be continued...

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 5

November 1988: principal photography for "What's Wrong with Neil?", written by Paul Vitols and Warren Easton--one of several Vancouver-produced episodes for the CBC anthology series Family Pictures.

Brad Turner, an experienced TV director, was hired to direct the episode. Michael's partner at Omni-Films, Rob McLachlan, a former competitive cyclist, was to be director of photography. David French was cast as Neil Kozak, the 12-year-old boy whose love-note to a girl in his class gets read out loud, causing him to flee home in mortification and feign illness so he never has to return to school to face his peers. Sarah Bowling was cast as Heather, his narcissistic older sister. The episode was filmed here on the suburban slopes of North Vancouver, using a house up in the Grousewoods neighborhood as the location for the Kozaks' home, and using Handsworth Secondary School to stand in for Neil's elementary school. The sets were a five-minute drive from my house.

When Warren and I first went up to the set, it was day one of filming at the school. There were equipment trucks outside and electrical cables snaking through the weekend halls. The crew was competent and busy, but the atmosphere was relaxed and fun.

In high school I had made films myself, and so had had the experience of being on sets where my own writing was being filmed. But those were small, low-budget, self-financed efforts--which I also coproduced and directed. The feeling was altogether different from walking on the set of a full-blown professional film production on which everyone is carrying around pink copies of the script that we'd written, all marked up with their own technical concerns. It was a huge thrill.

I've just fished out the file on "What's Wrong with Neil?" from a box under my desk that contains "old projects". My gosh: here's acopy of the "final draft script", with the title page on Omni-Films letterhead; a copy of the shooting schedule; a copy of our 3-page writer contract (our total fee: $5,346--very nice in 1988); our resume; and a couple of black-and-white still photos from the production. One is a cast-and-crew group shot; the other is a shot of Warren and me looking on at the filming: an intent and wonder-struck pair of young men.

The second scene filmed one day 1 was scene 1, the opener of act 1. Here's the beginning of that script, which I have right in front of me:


OPENING TITLE SUPER over a BIG CLOSEUP of the HAND of a 12-year-old BOY, drawing something carefully on a folded-up wad of looseleaf. It's a heart.

PULL BACK TO ESTABLISH the boy in a grade seven classroom, where the kids are all bent over some kind of worksheet. He is NEIL KOZAK, an outwardly unemotional, nerdish boy, and he has finished his worksheet some time ago. He covers the folded looseleaf with his hands, afraid of having it seen. He glances at the desk beside his. From his POV we see the girl working there: BETH ANDERSON, an outspoken girl who can order around boys her own age. There's a book satchel on the floor by her desk. When we CUT TO NEIL'S FACE again, we can see that he adores her. His reverie is broken by a whisper:

Neil--what's the answer to number seventeen?

It is JASPER GOPAL, Neil's loyal Indian-Canadian friend, who is more at home with skateboards and NHL players than school worksheets. He sits in the desk in front of Beth.

The Holy Roman Empire.

The BOY in the desk in front of Neil's also turns around. It is RANDY SINCLAIR, class showoff and sadist.

Hey Kozak--what's number four?

You're only on number four?

Randy reaches across the aisle and whacks Jasper with a flexible plastic ruler.

Shut up, retard. I left this one for last, okay?

Stuff a sock in it, Sinclair. Do your own work.

Randy pretends to tremble.

Thus page 1 of the script. For most of the filming Warren and I were allowed into the classroom, stuffed in a corner among lights and so on. Brad Turner was very good with the kids, relaxed and easygoing. After each take he would laugh at the humor of the scene. In one shot, where Neil had to pass his note at a certain point while the camera moved, and David kept missing his cue or timing it wrong, Brad had a rope tied around David's leg, which Brad pulled in order to cue him at the right moment during the camera move.

People working on the show were very complimentary to us about the script. Everybody liked it and wanted to realize it to their utmost. The atmosphere on the set was very relaxed, creative, and "up". Warren and I loved being there. Writing isn't always fun, but watching people film a (good) script that you've written is fun.

The days went by and the filming went well. Warren and I spent lots of time on the set, eating catered lunches with the crew under a tarp while the cold November rain fell around us.

On one of the days when it was not raining, Warren and I went walking through the neighborhood around the set. We agreed that having our script produced was an altogether excellent experience. There was only one thing wrong with it: it was only one script. A single episode. After that: nothing. In order to keep this experience happening, we'd have to create our own TV series--a whole bunch of scripts.

That focused our minds: we need a TV show. But what?

That was the question. Flash Dispatch, the pilot script we'd written four years earlier, going on five, was pretty much a dead issue. The fax machine had arrived and the bicycle courier's day was already in decline. We needed something new--but what?

We liked writing for kids and knew we could do it well. Everyone commented on the vivid and nonpatronizing way we had written the kids' parts in "What's Wrong with Neil?". We saw kids as distinct, passionate individuals, not different from adults except in their level of knowledge about the world. Yes: we wanted to write kid material, but with a comedic take.

But what?

To be continued...

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 4

Warren and I wrote "What's Wrong with Neil?" on weekends and evenings in 1988, as I recall (you reading this, Warren? feel free to elaborate), mainly here in my home office. We took it through the stages laid out in the Writers Guild of Canada Independent Production Agreement, from step outline to first draft to final draft. I typed the material on my electric typewriter, and we received actual payments for each step.

(For Flash Dispatch we had never received any actual money payment--just the use of the spare room in the Omni-Films suite in the Dominion Building. The only person, as far as I know, who was actually paid for "working" on the Flash Dispatch script was a woman writer whom Michael Chechik had engaged to critique the script, who received $100 essentially to trash the project. Warren and I were choked about that. Michael, as ever, laughed the whole thing off as though it had involved people he didn't know personally and he were merely hearing about it third-hand.)

Where was I. When we delivered the first draft of the script, probably about June 1988, the series story editor, Jana Veverka, was favorably impressed, and conceded that we had indeed found plenty of story in our idea to fill the half-hour (a commercial TV "half-hour" is actually something just under 24 minutes of storytelling). As a professional scriptwriter herself, she offered good, focused comments on how to improve aspects of the script, and kept her hands off the stuff that worked--which was most of it. We would eventually learn how different that type of story meeting was from one with network executives who had never written anything and who had to guess at what they liked and didn't like about a script.

In all, the writing process was pleasant. People found the script engaging and funny--the people we were dealing with, that is. For the decision on whether to go ahead and shoot the script would be made by CBC honchos back in Toronto. That's the big decision, the expensive decision. Warren and I split about $3,000 to write the script, and that was essentially most of the cost associated with the episode up to that point. To produce the thing (and for this Michael had to submit a budget to the network) would cost (I'm guessing, thinking back to 1988 prices) something on the order of $200,000. Not all of this money would come from the CBC, for in Canada, with its small population, even a national network doesn't earn enough to be able to finance full-blown drama productions on its own. Funding had to be tapped from Telefilm, another federal cultural agency, and then also from other sources--hard to find, since TV shows in Canada had an even tougher time then making money than they do now.

However, with a broadcast commitment from the CBC, that other funding could definitely be found. Would they go for it? How did we compare with the other scripts and productions being dreamed up across the country for this Family Pictures anthology? Warren and I had seen some of the other concepts being developed, and thought ours compared very favorably. For one thing, it was one of the few comedies in the mix, and of those, it had probably the catchiest premise--the intercepted love-note. Jana Veverka liked it--but the decision was not hers.

It would have been in the summer, July or August, that I got the call from Michael: the network had green-lighted us for production.

Yahoo! Another big increase in "realness" for the writers: our script was actually going to be produced! All kinds of expert help would be hired, film would be purchased, expensive equipment rented--people would be poring over our little script, figuring out how to get it on film! Plus, on day 1 of "principal photography", Warren and I would get another lump-sum payment--the balance of our writing fee, which was contingent on the show actually being produced.

This was it: the true watershed of film writing. Years later, at a writers' conference, I heard a presentation by a literary agent talking about the difficulties facing writers known to the publishing world as the uns: unpublished and unrepresented. In the film world, the un writer is unproduced. When you cross the divide from unproduced to produced, you enter the realm of the professional: you join those who also have persuaded people to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe more, to realize your work. Let me tell you, it's a great feeling. Especially for something so flaky and creative, something created by, as Warren and I sometimes said, "two kooks in a room."

Michael quickly got things rolling, hiring people, getting the rest of the financing together. Meanwhile he, the producer, like producers elsewhere, was having to provide his own "bridge financing"--fronting his own money to meet expenses, trusting that the big corporations who have made the promises will eventually cut him checks, as stipulated, when all the gears have turned in their internal bureaucracies.

Production was slated for early November. I did my utmost to arrange some days off, for by day I was still a clerk at another Crown Corporation--a writerly Clark Kent whose everyday identity earned his crust by helping keep B.C.'s vehicle fleet licensed and insured. Now I really had something to look forward to: watching people film the material I'd written.

More of that anon. To be continued...

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Monday, February 11, 2008

teeth first

This morning I'm off to a long dental appointment (not even sure exactly what they'll be doing in all that time). It's a dark, rainy Monday here.

I'll pick up the thread of my tale later--probably tomorrow. As for now, it's all about oral health...


Friday, February 08, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 3

In 1987 I got away from scriptwriting. I was back at the Insurance Corporation; I became a Buddhist and took up meditation; Kimmie and I bought a townhouse together; and I was working on my New Age thriller novel, Truth of the Python.

I recall that Warren and I prepared more material for our would-be TV series Flash Dispatch, ideas for episodes for a first season, plus a description of how each episode would look and feel, and descriptions of the characters--material that in the TV world constitutes the "bible" of a series. Michael Chechik got the material in front of CBC drama executives in Vancouver, but their verdict was that the pilot script did not live up the potential in the accompanying material.

So there we sat.

But later that year, CBC headquarters in Toronto, no doubt responding to ongoing prodding and complaining by independent producers across the country, and making one of their occasional token efforts to give substance to their mandate to be a "national" broadcaster and not merely a Toronto broadcaster, came up with the idea of producing an anthology of one-off half-hour dramas from non-Toronto producers (that is, from "the regions", in CBC-speak). The intent was to give producers in "the regions" a chance to get some experience in producing drama for the CBC, and, of course, to give voice to "regional" perspectives from across Canada. It will help Canadians learn more about each other! Just what the CBC is supposed to promote! Warm glows all round.

The anthology was to be called Family Pictures, and the theme was Canadian family life. CBC corporate ambassadors were sent out to meet with "regional" producers to explain the concept and give them documents describing what the network was looking for in the dramas. Michael was at the Vancouver meeting, and he called Warren and me up to suggest that we come up with an idea to pitch to the CBC. We said sure.

I came up with an idea. It was on 7 December 1987. I thought back to when I was in grade 7 at Brooksbank School here in North Vancouver, when I heard a rumor about a boy in another grade 7 class who had passed a love-note to a girl in the class, and the note had fallen into someone else's hands and then been made public. I don't know whether that actually happened, and I don't recall the boy in question acting any differently than usual (strange in any case), but I thought: what if we wrote that story, and had our lover-boy feel, in his humiliation, that he can't return to school ever again to face his peers?

When I pitched the idea to Warren he liked it right away; we knew it was a winner. And it was exactly the kind of thing we wanted to do: a comedy focused on kids. Thus was born the idea for "What's Wrong with Neil?": the story of a 12-year-old boy who passes a love-note to a girl in class, which is intercepted and read out loud by the class showoff, thus causing the boy to run home and pretend to be sick--so sick he could never go back to school...

We wrote up a couple of pages of material sketching the story and gave them to Michael. He sent them in to the CBC, and we waited.

A few months later (fast in TV-show-development time), probably early spring 1988, I got a call from Michael: the CBC liked our story and wanted to go to script.

Wahoo! I experienced the next big leap forward in "realness": it wasn't just a producer now who was interested in my work--it was a network, the people who would actually pay for it to be produced, and then broadcast it! Jubilation!

But I didn't quit my job--not this time. This was only a one-off half-hour drama, and I had two mortgages now. Warren and I would have to write in our available off-job time, as when we'd written Flash Dispatch. But now we were not on conflicting shifts; I was on days and it would be a lot easier.

Michael held a meeting at Omni in which we met with Jana Veverka, the story editor contracted by the CBC to supervise the writing of the scripts for Family Pictures. (Later she'd go on to produce TV shows such as Bordertown and Airwolf.) As I recall, that first meeting was still in the Omni suite on the 11th floor of the Dominion Building. Jana was very positive about the story idea, and liked the fact that our hero was a nerdish love-sick 12-year-old. Her concern was that there might not be enough story there to fill a half-hour of TV.

"There's plenty there," we said. We saw some nice farce opportunities in the story.

There: we'd just had our first meeting with a network representative--our first "story meeting". We were on our way.

To be continued...

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 2

In yesterday's post I started talking about the origins of the TV series The Odyssey. Today I'll continue.

In December 1985 the Vancouver film producer Michael Chechik called me up to express interest in producing Flash Dispatch, the half-hour pilot script that Warren Easton and I had written about bicycle couriers. I recall driving through snow to meet Michael at La Bodega in the West End, not wanting to postpone the meeting merely because of the weather. I'd met Michael before of course, but things were different when the issue of a project of my own creation was on the table: I was moving to the inside of the industry, I felt.

Michael's enthusiasm was genuine, and this is a huge boost for any writer, who toils mostly in obscurity and self-doubt, and very often in failure. In the world of filmmaking, the highest compliment any producer can give a writer is to form a sincere desire to produce his work. Verbal expressions of praise are only icing on the cake. So, on that cold dark night, in the dim and rather deserted atmosphere of the tapas bar, I basked in the feeling of becoming "real" (sort of like that excellent children's story The Velveteen Rabbit, if you've ever read that: in the story, becoming "real" is the dream and goal of every plush-toy).

Michael, with his electric-blue eyes, neatly trimmed beard, and rather high-pitched, fast-talking voice, expressed his eagerness to make the pilot--but of course there was the matter of getting a broadcaster interested, and funding the production. Indeed, he didn't have the resources even to buy an option on the script, a normal step in the big time when a producer wants to lock down the rights to a particular project so he can see about raising funding to produce it.

That was OK with me. I knew that Michael so far had not produced any drama; he and his two partners at Omni-Films were documentary producers, and in fact had won a Genie Award for their documentary Greenpeace: Voyages to Save the Whales. (Michael's involvement in the movie Walls was more that of a silent partner, as I understood it, rather than as a primary producer of it.) Producing a drama from scratch would be something new for them--as it would be for me and Warren. Michael's newness was one thing that made him open to looking at our work, so I was more than willing for us all to be newbies together.

Michael set the wheels in motion, and had us write (I think) another draft or two of the script, along with supporting material discussing and selling the concept for the TV series. Warren and I were invited in to meet the people at Omni-Films, a small cadre of 20- and 30-somethings operating out of a suite of offices near the top of the Dominion Building, a picturesque 1910 office tower at Hastings and Cambie that was briefly the tallest building in the British Empire (13 stories). We used the Omni word-processor to prepare final drafts of the material.

Now that we were in show business, Warren and I of course had to quit whatever pesky jobs we had and set up as full-time TV and movie writers. I quit my job at ICBC, and Warren and I took to meeting every day, first of all in a spare room at my mother's house, but then soon at our own office in the Dominion Building--a place where, it turned out, you could rent a one-room office with its own sink for $80 a month. We took an 8th-floor terrazzo-floored office facing west over roof parking-lots and looking into the walls of downtown high-rises, furnished it with a friend's old desk and a couple of mismatched chairs, chose the whimsical business name The Megavolt Script Factory, which the landlady put on the building directory down in the marble-floored lobby, and got to work.

Yes: work. What to write? We came up with and submitted show ideas for Canadian series running at that time, like Night Heat (our favorite) and Danger Bay. We started working on a screenplay, The Panda Gap, a Cold War comedy that featured the abduction of politically sensitive panda-bears. And, because we had a telephone and therefore a Yellow Pages listing, we fielded inquiries from young would-be scriptwriters who wanted to join our company. Our gross earnings for the first half of 1986: $0.

Meanwhile, Michael kept pressing to finance Flash Dispatch. There were some exciting moments. I recall him showing us a letter of intent from Jan Rofekamp, at that time a Montreal film distributor, expressing enthusiasm for the script and assuring us that if we could deliver the show, he could certainly find buyers for it
internationally. We were feeling more and more "real".

An office in the Omni suite became available, and, in exchange for a continuing "option" on Flash Dispatch, Michael let us have it gratis. The Megavolt Script Factory moved up to the 11th floor, now looking east over the more picturesque Downtown East Side. It was a smaller room, and I think the sink didn't work here, but we were closer to the heart of the action. The people at Omni said that they heard us laughing all day long from the office down the hall. I don't think that that was much of an exaggeration.

As 1986 started drawing to a close, Warren and I were forced to ask ourselves whether we could afford to be professional film and TV writers. Although we did actually earn some scriptwriting income that year--we split $1,000 paid to us by a director who liked our work, and who wanted us to write a sitcom pilot for him about an old-folks' home--the writing contracts were not flooding in as we'd hoped. There was the odd producer or director who wanted us to write something for free--sorry: on "spec"--but these projects were always terrible, and we felt that if we were going to write for free, we might as well do our own material, or at least something we liked.

In short, I was going broke. I also wanted to devote more time to writing a novel I'd started, Truth of the Python, about a Vancouver hypnotherapist who accidentally regresses a client to a past life as the philosopher Pythagoras. Feeling chastened after a year as a "real" TV and movie writer, I returned to my job at ICBC in December 1986, a month before my 28th birthday. Warren stayed on for a time as the lone representative of The Megavolt Script Factory, but eventually he too had to give up the office and find gainful employment.

As for Michael, he hadn't given up on Flash Dispatch. It's just that these things take time...

And as 1987 came in, I had returned to corporate life, and the dream of scriptwriting was apparently a bust, at least for the time being.

To be continued...

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Odyssey odyssey, part 1

Thanks to Liza and Squall142 for their kind comments in yesterday's post. I recognize that this blog is not one that really stimulates community participation, but I do appreciate contributions when they arrive.

Fans of The Odyssey have expressed curiosity about how the show came to be, and I have meant to say more about that. Maybe I'll start now.

Warren Easton and I had been friends from childhood, as far back as grade 3 in North Vancouver. Along with other friends we had an interest in creative and dramatic things such as writing and acting. After leaving high school 1977 we lost the nurturing environment for following these things, but were still interested in these creative pursuits, even if it wasn't clear how to follow these now.

After some time spent (mainly separately) working, traveling, and dropping out of higher education, we agreed in spring 1982 to write a script together--a made-for-TV movie.

Well, we never quite finished that, but over the next few years, while varying between unemployment and working at various jobs, we kept chipping away at script projects. At the same time, I was a stringer for a small Montreal-based magazine called Cinema Canada, writing articles and then columns about happenings in the film and TV industry in Vancouver. This got me meeting people in the industry (and getting them willing to talk to me!). One of the people I met was Michael Chechik, a local producer whose company, Omni-Films, was involved in making the feature film Walls, a true-life prison story starring Winston Rekert, who went on to star in the TV series Neon Rider.

When my father, Al Vitols, who was a current-affairs producer for CBC-TV in Vancouver, told me that the long-running, locally produced TV series The Beachcombers was going to come to an end before long, and that the CBC may well be looking for something to replace it, Warren and I put our heads together and came up with what we thought was a similar adventure-comedy idea, but more urban in tone and therefore (we assumed) also cheaper to produce, maybe. It was a show about bicycle couriers, which we called Flash Dispatch. (At that time, 1983-84, bicycle couriers were everywhere in Vancouver; the fax machine had not yet arrived, still less the Internet.)

After studying a couple of half-hour CBC scripts that my father furnished us, Warren and I set to work writing a pilot script for our half-hour would-be TV series. (Like many proto-TV writers, we looked at the scripts and thought, "Cripes, we can do better than that.") Warren and I had both recently ended periods of poverty and unemployment by getting jobs, he as a messenger at a securities firm downtown; I soft-landed as a clerk at the Insurance Corporation of B.C.--a cushy unionized job. He worked days and I worked evenings, so we got together at midnight each night in his little apartment over a bagel shop at 16th and Oak in Vancouver. With a typewriter set up on something like an upended box (he had no furniture), I typed while he paced or lounged, and the traffic zoomed noisily past just below.

This was in the winter of 1984. After a few grueling weeks of working like this, we had a pilot script for our show. Entitled "The Old Switcheroo", the episode had one of our young couriers involved in mistakenly picking up a pack filled with the proceeds of a bank robbery, with farcical results. It was a comedy with fast-moving, outdoor, West Coast action: we thought it was good, and we started trying to get it read--first of all by sending it to the CBC.

Nothing. No response. Not yes, not no--nothing. Gradually we realized that we'd probably have to start showing it to other people, producers. At the same time, we tried to come up with other ideas, while also keeping body and soul together by holding down regular jobs.

I forget now exactly how it happened, but at some point, late in 1985, I sent some material to Michael Chechik at Omni-Films--Flash Dispatch and a story treatment for a TV movie that Warren and I had worked up about ice dancing, called Dancing on Ice. Well, one evening, I think in early December 1985, I got a call at home from Michael, saying he really liked the Flash Dispatch script and wanted to see about getting it produced.

Yahoo! I thought. I'm in show business!

We agreed to meet at La Bodega, a tapas bar downtown, to talk about it. How exciting! We were going to be produced!

There were plenty of twists and turns yet to come. But that will be for future installments...

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

prophets without honor

I awoke sometime before 2:00 and lay awake in the dark, thinking about problems. The night air was cold. By 3:15, feeling farther from sleep than ever, I got up, pulled on a sweatshirt, sweatpants, socks, and moccasins, and padded downstairs.

In the silence of night the front-porch light glowed dimly in the corridor. I twisted on the heat in the living-room and reset the furniture, which I had moved for TV viewing earlier on, as every night. I switched on the standing lamp, poured myself a cranberry juice (I've decided to forgo whisky in these late-night times in favor of something more productive), and cracked open Asimov's Guide to the Bible (Old Testament), highlighter in hand.

I pushed on with his discussion of the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, in whose long prophetic career he enjoyed virtually no attention, respect, or success (in terms of influencing the behavior of his countrymen). A witness to the destruction of the city and temple, which he had for so long predicted, he wound up a captive of hostile countrymen, finishing his days, apparently, in exile in Egypt.

What a career. He was buffeted by the same forces that swirl around us today: nationalistic and jingoistic passions, people pinning their hopes on tribal violence to produce good outcomes. Jeremiah was an early advocate of realpolitik, telling people, in effect, that God favors realists. Long before the arrival of Nebuchadnezzar, he was urging Judah to submit to Babylon, and thereby save the temple and walls of Jerusalem.

Jeremiah was right, but he was ignored.

Am I a prophet? I wondered. Is it my destiny to send a futile message to my fellow humans?

Maybe. But my life is easy--so far.

After two glasses of juice, I set down Asimov, switched off the light and heat, and padded back upstairs to spend the last hour of night in the warmth of bed. I dozed briefly before the alarm went off at 5:30.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

soul bribery

Back at the rock-pile.

This morning the temperature has dropped back below zero (Celsius), relatively cold for this resort city washed by the warm Pacific. Crusts of aging snow web the darkness with white.

And this morning, so far, I have keyed notes from three research books: Isis in the Ancient World by R. E. Witt; Goat Husbandry by David Mackenzie; and The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.

As I read and then type my research works, I'm often struck by how they offer a highly relevant commentary on my own current life. For example, lately my thoughts have been circling around money. This morning I typed these words (a compressed extract) from James's book:

We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation from material attachments, the unbribed soul, the manlier indifference--the more athletic trim, in short, the moral fighting shape. When we are scared as men were never scared in history at material ugliness and hardship; when we put off marriage until our house can be artistic, and quake at the thought of having a child without a bank account and doomed to manual labor, it is time for thinking men to protest against so unmanly and irreligious a state of opinion.

It is true that so far as wealth gives time for ideal ends and exercise to ideal energies, wealth is better than poverty. But wealth does this in only a portion of the actual cases. Elsewhere the desire to gain wealth and the fear to lose it are our chief breeders of cowardice and propagators of corruption. Think of the strength which personal indifference to poverty would give us if we were devoted to unpopular causes. We need no longer hold our tongues or fear to vote the revolutionary or reformatory ticket. Our hopes of promotion vanish, our salaries stop; yet, while we lived, we would imperturbably bear witness to the spirit, and our example would help to set free our generation. The cause would need its funds, but we its servants would be potent in proportion as we personally were contented with our poverty.

The prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers.

Strongly put--but no more strongly than it should be. "The unbribed soul"--those words have the power to haunt one, and they should haunt one.

From time to time I ask myself: has my soul been bribed? I do not chase overtly after wealth these days, but I do live a comfortably bourgeois lifestyle in one of the world's richest societies. I own my own house and my own car (shared ownership in each case). On a world scale, I'm one of the rich. Have I sold out?

It's not a completely straightforward question. In the main, I am not governed my money or financial gain. But I do worry about my ongoing solvency, and no doubt this concern affects my thinking and my decisions. I recognize in myself the "cowardice" and "corruption" named by James: the timidity and compromise that steal over one invisibly when presented with the possibility of loss or even of reduced gain. When you calculate what your beliefs or integrity may cost you, you put a dollar value on your principles, and in so doing, turn them into mere economic entities. You're a worshipper of Mammon.

I was again amazed to think that James's words were first published in 1902. Even from his vantage, society had gone soft, had agreed to exchange whatever principles it may have had for creature comforts. I think of my similar surprise in reading Sister Carrie in 2006, published in 1900: Dreiser's depiction of the materialistic and consumeristic wasteland of America as he saw it. It is as though even then people had taken their motto from the Bible:

If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."

(Interestingly, both Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:32 and Isaiah in Isaiah 22:13 put this phrase in quotations, but it's not clear to me whom they're quoting. People usually point back to Ecclesiastes, but the phrase as such does not exist there--not in my Bible, anyway.)

Well then. Am I a sellout? Answer: partly. But only partly!

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