Earlier this month I got to sit down with Pam Davis, CFC grad and House writer. Pam had taken some time away from the picket lines in LA to come home to Toronto and stopped by the Film Centre to talk to the CBC Prime Time TV Programme residents and I got to moderate the discussion.
Davis is modest and very low key and at the same time, clearly delighted with her job. Her most recent episode, It’s A Wonderful Lie, had just aired that week and was really terrific.
Davis had gone to the CFC after working widely in the Canadian industry but failing to break in as a drama writer. Post-CFC her luck didn’t change so she decided to give LA a shot. She had considerably more luck there.
She snagged a job as the assistant to the writers on the first season of House. She became a member of the writing staff this season. To date, she has four House episodes to her credit.
House has 11 writers in the story department and they work 50 weeks a year. That means each writer is responsible for about two scripts a season and has 25 weeks to work on each. They work long hours — ordering in dinner most nights, especially in the weeks before their own script goes into production.
(Let’s compare that to the work load in a Canadian story department. The typical story department has four writers and 13 episodes to deliver. They’ll have 2, 3 or 4 scripts each to write and the timeline is a lot shorter.)
The House story department is divided into two teams — in effect two different story departments each led by a senior writer. Davis told us that House showrunner, creator and fellow Canadian, David Shore prefers not to have story broken by the room. So on her team, each writer breaks story on his or her own and then re-works it with input from the team leader and notes from other writers.
The other team actually does break story in the room. So House has the best of both worlds.
All drafts are circulated to all writers and all writers are invited to give notes. However, nothing goes to the network for notes until the final draft. (Another great moment to do a comparison to the Canadian system. There you’ve got eleven writing minds on a script and no network notes until they’ve completed the process. Here you’ve got about four writing minds working on the script but the network weighs in at every stage: story idea, outline and every draft.)
Davis also told us about the final script stage when the writer goes to David Shore’s office. Shore loads the script into his computer. He has a second monitor pointed at the writer who watches and collaborates with Shore on the final changes. Davis says Shore’s changes always deepen and improve the work.
Sometimes Shore gives notes on a scene and leaves the room. Then the writer gets into his chair and reworks the scene while Shore plays a game of pool.
You can see by the results that the House story system works like crazy.
No wonder that show works. Shore gave a great quote to the Globe and Mail:
“Canadian television so often fails for the same reason American movies so often fail: They’re not controlled by writers.”
Interesting. But I would say, Jill, that in departments i have ran I would never give anything but the final draft to the networks — I’d give an outline for the first couple eps on a series but after that I’d give them three pagers and then the final draft — now I may not have run the best shows in the world but limiting input (outside of the writers you’re jamming with ) is the only way to get something half decent.
I have an idea for a show, who do I contact?
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