Reel Life Weekly Update #1: Inspiration & Scripts

Before delving into the details I want to divulge today about Reel Life, I would like to apologize for being silent about the show for the past few weeks after promising to share new information about the show every Wednesday. As I stated in the reveal post, life has gotten extraordinarily busy as of late so the time I have to work on the show has gotten a bit more sparse. But more on that another time.

I plan to share something new every Wednesday, for real this time. What I share may not necessarily be recent developments, but will still be new information to the public regardless. Now, without further ado…

Influence and Inspiration

Seeing as how Reel Life takes place in Los Angeles, it only makes sense that it was inspired in some way by other works that take place there. The two biggest shows in this regard, to me, have been Californication and BoJack Horseman. The former is about a novelist with sex and drug addictions trying to rebuild his life after his long-time girlfriend leaves him while also trying to be a better father for their daughter as she enters her teenage years. The latter is about a washed up sitcom actor with a massive yet fragile ego whose struggles with depression and alcoholism fuel a self-loathing that ultimately hurts every human relationship he’s ever had.

If you were to combine elements of Hank Moody from Californication and BoJack Horseman, and sprinkle in a bit of that one film student you kinda knew in college, you’d end up with a rough version of James Greene, Reel Life‘s main protagonist. And I don’t mean that as in “That’s more or less who he is,” so much as “That’s how he was in earlier drafts.”

James Greene can be a snarky, sarcastic guy, but in those first few drafts of the pilot script he could be downright demeaning and aggressive. He would go on tirades about things he didn’t like or approach a delicate situation with a self-superior demeanor, as though he was totally in control. That’s not who James Greene is now. In his current incarnation, James is much more modest and warm, though he still retains his snark and a bit of wit. He just isn’t malicious about it now so much as irritated.

The third show that comes to mind when thinking of what inspired the show is The Critic, mainly for the character of Jeremy Hawke, an Australian actor with a massive ego who is not only a huge star, but also Jay Sherman’s best friend. Jeremy sees Jay as someone who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and isn’t blinded by the idea of fame.

Ethan Jackson, one of James’ best friends on Reel Life, is very much an English version of Jeremy Hawke, though with an ego which is far less inflated and a career which isn’t solely defined by being the star of blockbuster action movies with little substance. Instead, Ethan takes his career as an actor very seriously, and despite his celebrity status he prefers a more quiet life, though he does do something big every so often for publicity’s sake in order to keep his name in the news for consideration by casting departments.

In a looser sense, The Disaster Artist can also be considered somewhat of an inspiration for the series. Greg Sestero had trouble getting acting jobs for years when he moved to Los Angeles, and James Greene goes through a similar struggle in that regard. This aspect of Sestero’s life is explored more in the book than the film, and while I enjoyed the film, I feel that it is more of its own entity separate from the book, which I highly recommend reading.

But beyond media, Reel Life is (very) loosely based on my own personal experience. I’ve never been to LA; in fact, the furthest west I’ve been is Dallas. So when it comes to SoCal culture, I have been pulling from TV, movies, and games (such as Grand Theft Auto V itself). But certain characters and situations have been inspired by real people, events, and circumstances in my own life.

James Greene is very much based on myself. He wants to create and to tell stories, but life keeps getting in the way of that. He’s ambitious, but doesn’t always think things entirely through. He can be stubborn about certain things, but is generally open-minded. He struggles with depression and can’t help but rag on himself and his work, which has culminated in a bit of an inferiority complex when compared to his former classmates.

Serena Matthews and Jennifer Davis were inspired by two girls with whom I had TV Production class for all four years of high school. The real-life Serena went to UCF after we graduated and gave me some advice when I eventually came to the university, by which point she had been accepted into the school’s BFA program for Film. The real-life Jenny moved to California and has been working on numerous productions of varying scales ever since.

I wouldn’t call them friends, necessarily. We were more acquaintances than anything. But in the nearly five years since high school, they have accomplished so much more in their efforts to break into the film industry than I have, and it weighs on me. I hold no ill will towards either of them, and am glad to see them succeed, but I do feel a bit deflated thinking about that widening gap. I know it’s not a competition, but sometimes it makes me wonder why I even try.

And that’s the significance behind this audition line for James Greene:

“Ever since high school, I always felt like they were in a whole other league; that they were better than me. I know it’s not a competition or anything, but looking where I am…and then seeing how successful they’ve gotten in the same amount of time? I just…why do I even try?”

 

Words, Words, Words…

The foundation of a movie or TV episode lies in its script. It’s where the characters are given purpose and the story is put together. Often times, a movie can be saved in post-production with clever edits and cuts, but if the script is bad then no amount of editing can truly save a project.

When I was working on season 3 of Lost in Reach, I rarely wrote past the first draft of an episode’s script. Not only was I cocky, but I may have just been trying to finish the season as fast as I possibly could. Maybe it was because I knew that whole season was a salvage job for the entire series, or that I wanted to move onto the ideas I had for the series beyond that season. Or maybe it was because the time I had before moving away was limited and I needed to get all of my friends’ lines recorded as soon as humanly possible, thus necessitating the rushed writing process.

Whatever the case, I didn’t want to make the same mistake with Reel Life, which I had begun conceptualizing around the time Lost in Reach basically died. Someday I’ll probably share the cliff notes version of what the second half of season 3 was meant to be, but I digress.

Writing the Pilot

Early last month, I completed the ninth and final draft of the pilot script. It was just some minor touch ups in descriptions and a quick addition or two to a couple lines, but they were still changes. Not including the title page, it is thirty pages long.

The first draft, which went under the series working title A2, was completed in October 2015, and was thirty-two pages long. The following month, a second draft was prepared prior to consultation with a trusted film critic. This draft still had the same page count, but the biggest change was the working title being changed from the vague and nondescript A2 to Reel Life, which stuck. The episode title, “The Greene Mile”, remained. Originally, I wanted each episode title to be an homage to a classic or beloved film, but that didn’t pan out.

Draft number three was completed in December 2015, with the consultant’s feedback in mind. This draft was thirty pages, thanks to the cutting of extraneous dialogue, descriptions, and rantings, but it was also the first draft that brought James more down to earth. In the first two drafts, he would rant about hipsters and blustered into the climactic confrontation with an uncharacteristic confidence. Here, he became a bit more laid back and consistent.

A few more drafts were written up between the end of 2015 and Summer 2017, with draft seven being submitted to a screenplay competition for the sake of gaining professional feedback. I received said feedback in November, which noted that the script, which I had gotten down to twenty-nine pages by this point, was tightly written with clear act breaks, a “light-hearted” tone, and a definitive protagonist, but I was more focused on the problems the reader had with the script.

For the sake of not getting into spoilers, I’ll focus on one aspect of their critique: James. They did not know whether he was meant to be a likable protagonist, and cited some of his interactions with other characters as being somewhat antithetical to his personal goals. While reading and re-reading this analysis, I removed myself from the script and the plans I had for the series moving forward, and found myself to be in agreement with the reader. Another draft was necessary.

Unfortunately, by this point, a few of the roles had already been cast and the voice actors’ lines sent in, so I had to take care in rewriting the script. Draft eight, now with the episode title “Reunions”, was the result. The page count had jumped from twenty-nine up to thirty-one, but this was due to dialogue changes and additions were made for the sole purpose of making James a bit more likable, as well as to better establish his relationship with Serena. This was the version sent to the remaining voice actors once they had been cast, and January’s draft nine was, as stated earlier, a minor touch up job for descriptors and the like, and is thirty pages.

While all of the pilot’s dialogue has been recorded, I still need to touch up the script one more time to account for the improvised lines that was being put in the pre-lay. This final touch up won’t be a draft ten, but rather the shooting script, i.e. the version of the script which is based on the final product rather than what the final product is based. This would be for the sake of making body acting easier due to the timing of lip movements in GTA Online.

Overall Progress

While the pilot script is done, the same cannot be said for the rest of the first season’s scripts. While all eight episodes have been outlined to varying degrees, only the first three episodes have any completed drafts, with the first draft of episode four currently only six pages in. I’m trying to keep every episode around thirty minutes long at most, which translated to a script means thirty pages, though my hard cap is thirty-five.

Episode 2 is currently on its seventh draft as of last month, going from nearly fifty pages in its incomplete first draft to thirty-two in its current state. It’s maybe one or two quick passes away from being ready. Maybe.

Episode 3 is on its fourth draft as of January, as well, starting at twenty-five pages in its first draft in December and currently sitting at twenty-seven. I have an idea for this episode in particular that I’m not entirely sure would work, so once the script is at a point that I feel comfortable asking people for feedback I’ll send over two versions for comparison’s sake. I’m surprised this episode is relatively short compared to the previous two, but I do not feel any need to pad it out for the sake of padding it out.

Progress, Goals, & Expectations

I can’t say for certain that I want script X draft Y done by date Z, but that’s mainly due to other priorities in life right now. But when it comes to moving from one script to the next, I try to finish two or three drafts of one episode’s script before beginning the first draft of the next, but once that first draft is finished I try to come back to the previous script I was working on. Focusing too much on one script at a time can lead to me over thinking certain aspects, and the script can suffer as a result.

I have two friends who I trust to read the scripts and give feedback, but only when I feel they’re ready to be read. And so far it’s always been just these two, as they’re interested in seeing where the series goes and have started with reading the pilot, so reading them in chronological order helps with feedback. Episode 3 may be ready soon.

I certainly plan to have the scripts for episodes two and three finalized and episode four’s second draft completed by the time I graduate in May.

But that’s enough of my ramblings. I don’t see future RLWU’s being as long as this one was, as I may have just been trying to compensate for a lack of updates for the last few weeks, but I will definitely have something new prepared next week.

#ReelLife

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