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Gillian Horvath and Donna Lettow - Script To Screen

Donna & Gillian.. or is it?Gillian and Donna opened the first session of the Convention and sat behind their table, placing name cards in front of themselves. They said that those of us who put reports on the Web would get them the wrong way round - I hope I've got them the right way round - Donna was the one that wearing glasses and Gillian was the one the auditioning for the principal boy in pantomime with a truly amazing set of thigh-length boots!

They said that the process of writing Highlander was similar, but not identical to other TV shows. This was because it was the first show shot in the way it was. Gillian said that they would often be asked at parties, "So when does that show start?" Now, of course, everyone has seen the show in syndication. It never used to be listed in the trade papers, but now it is mentioned as being inspirational or that another show is an "imitation" of it.

Whilst it may seem that the writers make it up as they go along, the process of writing a television show begins six months before filming starts. Work will start on the scripts in April, with the hope that six scripts will be written by September. Filming of each episode takes between six to eight days, with an extra day in France. Donna joked that they made this back by the fact that they did not have to build cathedrals for episodes filmed near Paris. They considered that they would be lucky to get the other seven episodes to be filmed in Vancouver written in time. They had time to catch up with themselves in the few weeks' break when the production was moved from Vancouver to Paris.

It is a misconception to believe that an episode is written by a single writer. As Gillian put it, if you want to be a single writer - go write a book! Television is a collaborative medium - they said that all the good things on Highlander had come out of collaboration, although it can degrade a good idea slightly. At this point, Donna decided to tease Gillian gently by calling her "Professor Horvath" and telling us that Gillian was teaching at UCLA on writing Episodic Television. Gillian quoted Steve Barnes, who had written for Baywatch, but who was also a collaborator with Larry Niven, who, when asked about how he viewed the collaborative process, said "it's just ink". They said that if you approach the collaborative process with a negative attitude, what you see on screen will feel ruined, but that too many times, they had seen an idea from an actor or someone connected with the show that worked better than whatever they had written. They quoted Ken Gord's decision to use a submarine base instead of a chateau - to which their reaction had been "yuck"! Gillian leant into the microphone and gave us lesson #1 - Ken Gord is God. They said that Ken Gord would often come to them with ideas for them to use, such as "well, there's this abandoned theme park....." They were referring, of course, to Epitaph For Tommy, about which Donna said that the Quickening was the best part of the episode. In film, you can go find the location you need, but in television, you have to use what you've got and if what the script requires is too expensive, you'll get an abandoned warehouse! This was where freelance writers were at a disadvantage, as they could not talk to the producers. For example, a writer might want to recreate the Raj, but there are no elephants up here in Vancouver.

So where does an episode start? It starts with the "Pitch". This is a couple of paragraphs which gives a short description of what happens in the story - "this is the episode where....." Pity the poor freelance writer who has to take their pitch into a room full of people and try to sell them on an episode which features a mad scientist with decapitating collars, (at this, Gillian visibly winced). Being on the staff, they could walk into David Abramowitz's office and say, "how about It's A Wonderful Life?" Once the pitch had been accepted, they would work out the story as a team. Gillian remembered walking into David's office and trying to sell him a story about the Mochi, who were a real tribe and worshipped a god called The Decapitator. David didn't like the idea, but Donna remembered that Gillian eventually got them on the show, via the back door, when she came up with a story line about a guy who thinks he's God, and, for the flashback.....

The next part of the writing process is the "Area". This is a page which lays down the outline of the episode, starting with the teaser in some detail. There must be enough action and mystery in the teaser to keep you interested enough to wait for the titles to play. As an example, Gillian quoted the Leader Of The Pack teaser, which talked about the man running and hunted by the dogs. The area will give the teaser in some detail, with an outline of the rest of the show. It must set out the motivation for MacLeod. An idea for a story could come from anywhere - for example, Travis Macdonald, who played Mark Roscza in The Darkness, told Ken Gord that he wanted to come back. As an aside, Donna quoted a number of actors who had expressed a desire to return - Anthony Stewart Head had asked her why he had never been asked back when they met at a party in Los Angeles and didn't seem to think that his starring role in Buffy The Vampire Slayer was a reason. Roger Daltrey was another actor who had wished to return and had offered to change his hairstyle so that he could come back as a different character before he reappeared in Till Death. The idea that Travis Macdonald had come up with, of Mac hunting Tessa's killer, was not enough for a story in its own right. There had to be another storyline, one which featured an evil immortal and, in this case, they gave him a gimmick - the dogs.

They said that Leader Of The Pack was a good example of a story where the plot and sub-plot were parallel rather than there being an A and B plot. Other examples of this were Glory Days and Timeless, rather than, as Donna put it, the racing sub-plot. Once it was decided that there was a good enough idea to pursue, the area was run past Bill Panzer, who acted as quality control. They said that it was easier to write once the series was established, as Season 1 stories had to be approved not only by Bill Panzer, but also by producers in a nine other countries. They said that this could lead to some interesting cultural insights - of Avenging Angel, the French said, "but he's only killing prostitutes". They did not necessarily view this as evil, but thought that the storyline for the Horsemen episodes was "pointlessly barbaric".

Once the area had been approved, the "Outline" was prepared. This consisted of 10 to 12 pages, with at paragraph outlining each scene in the proposed episode, (unless it was written by James Thorpe, who apparently would write Gone With The Wind). At this stage, the outline would contain no dialogue or business, it would just detail the things needed to progress the story from A to B. The hard part was not to tell the story in Act 1 and the trick was to find a conflict for Mac. It could be that the bad Immortal was a friend of Joe's or to otherwise make it difficult for MacLeod. They said they had a joke about the writers interrupting the story. They would often start a fight at the end of Act 2, but then interrupt it, as in Band Of Brothers or The Immortal Cimoli. They had a cartoon in the writers' office showing the writers dressed as clowns racing along in a pick-up truck with sirens on their heads. Gillian Horvath said that she had had a story meeting for Queen of Swords with James Thorpe and he said that he missed that pick-up truck, but Queen of Swords was set in 1870.

They said that having a flashback made it easier, as you could show the history between characters rather than have it spoken by someone and it also filled the time - if they had a flashback that took the whole of Act 3, you know that they had a problem! Gillian said that the first Baywatch episode she wrote had a flashback! They said that you should never think that the outline is great, as this is the most difficult bit, referred to as "breaking the story". Writing the script from an outline is not hard - getting a good outline is. Once the outline was done, then they would show it to Bill, whose reaction could never be predicted. Apparently, he read the outline of Revelation 6:8 and then threw it in the garbage, walking out with the comment that they'd talk on Monday! They said that all producers have trouble articulating what the problem with an outline is - David Abramowitz was brilliant at fixing what was needed with a script, which was not necessarily what he was told. Some directors would sent notes to the writers about changes to the script, asking them to put in some other things. They commented that generally the directors never saw how stupid some of the changes were, but that they knew that the audience would! They said that being a writer requires quite a lot of ego stroking.

Once the outline had been completed, the first draft of the script was prepared. They said that this was another area where the differences between the freelance writers and the staff writers showed. They spoke of the problems that the series had in that credited writers had to be French or Canadian, although in later seasons any EU citizen could be a credited writer. They told us that the French had wanted a sub-plot in Revelation 6:8 about Kronos trying to overthrow the European Union by attacking a summit meeting, an idea which would resurface in Deadly Exposure, (and later in the weekend as well). That idea had quietly been ignored, but then a friend of Gillian and Donna's brought them the French tapes and played them for them, simultaneously translating, and lo! - the attack on the summit was back. They pointed out that, in television, the writer never has the last word. You might think that it stayed with an actor, who did not have to say a line he did not want, but you'd be wrong, as the last word should be with the editor, or the producer, who can have dialogue looped in later. In this case, the last word stayed with the translator. They pointed out that, sometimes, the editor could add to a scene by using pieces of footage which were not necessarily intended for broadcast - for example, they quoted a scene from Chivalry, where Duncan is looking at Kristen. This was actually a piece of film where the camera was on Adrian Paul as he was waiting for the director to shout "Action". They also spoke about how a scene can be changed after its filmed. For example, they referred to the scene in Deliverance, (although Gillian used its original title of Leap Of Faith), where Methos and the Watcher meet on the dock. The original script had Duncan attack the Watcher in the phone booth, but the dialogue was looped-in in post-production for two reasons - first, to reflect the change in the story and second, to compensate for the French actor's imperfect English. Donna said that she had worked on a film last year which had been heavily re-edited in the weeks before its release. She said that she had been in the studio with five sitcom writers and that they had so many scenes where dialogue had been looped in and, as a result, the editor was forced to use shots of the back of the actor's head that they dubbed it "shoulder theatre". She said that the director was trying to work out how to get his name off the film! Gillian said that she could always tell when Lois & Clark had come up short, as there would be five minutes of Clark playing basketball before the story suddenly got going. Generally speaking, a freelance writer would be given two weeks to turn that the outline into a draft script, although this was not always as straightforward as it seemed. When Karen Harris got the outline back for Timeless, she was asked to make one small change - Walter had to be a nice guy and she wasn't to kill him at the end.

Once the first draft is presented, the script then undergoes revision. Gillian said that she would sit there reading the script wishing that Methos and Amanda sounded like the Methos and Amanda she knew. She said that the first draft of one episode that they were both in actually made her scream. Sometimes, all that a script needed was a little fine-tuning, to make sure that it followed the arcs for the season and that the locations were OK. Some scripts, however, needed a page 1 rewrite and then they knew they were in trouble. As examples of how the freelancers could get it right, they said that Karen Harris had "The alternative is unthinkable" in her original script, Michael O'Mahoney came up with "Candygram!" and Tony di Franco did his research to come up with Silas' "we live, we grow stronger and then we fight." Gillian said that she found it disconcerting when Forever Knight took her first-draft script, sent it to Toronto and filmed it. The way they worked on Highlander, the collaborative process would fix problems in the script. Once David Abramowitz and Bill Panzer had approved the script, it would be given to the Script Co-ordinator to prepare the shooting script, after which the episode belonged to the director and, perhaps more so, the assistant director who would prepare the shooting schedules and budgets for the episode. Generally, there would be a preparation period of six to eight days between the shooting script being released and filming beginning, so that as one episode started shooting, the next episode was going into preparation. Gillian said that the set people hated her for only giving them six days to build the Mochi village and Temple and that they threatened serious violence when she let them know that she had written that script at the Vancouver wrap party!

They said that there was a tremendous investments by all of the staff in Highlander, starting at the top down. Bill Panzer wanted to use Dust In The Wind for Unholy Alliance and had paid for the royalty rights out of his own pocket. Similarly, when they had wanted to use Stand By Me for the last episode, David Abramowitz and Bill Panzer had said that they would find the money. Gillian said that sometimes she had got what she wanted in a show by offering to pay for it herself. To put this into comparison, they said that most network shows had a budget that was a third greater than Highlander's. They said that they were under pressure to re-use sets - not always practical for some of the flashback sets, (although the yurts built for They Also Serve had apparently resurfaced in an episode of Stargate SG-1). Gillian had brought along production designer Rex Raglan's diary for Prophecy, which was to be sold in the auction. The diary contained the shooting schedule for the episode, which would include the assistant director's summary of each scene, usually in six to nine words. For Indiscretions, Donna said that she knew they had a problem when she saw that the assistant director had summarised two scenes as "Methos and Joe talk", with the next one being "Methos and Joe talk some more". They said that, if a scene had two thugs in it, one would always talk and the other wouldn't, one being an actor and the other being an extra, who cost a lot less. The shooting schedule would list the requirements for each scene, including that all props and set dressing. This was a very detailed list, so that everybody involved with the production knew what was required, even if it meant that they had to source a four-poster bed with a mounted wolf's head pelt in six days! The production diary included blueprints of the sets and even some storyboards that Rex had done.

The writers would get a phone call during the prep period when the script's flaws became apparent. They said that they got a phone call during the making of Epitaph For Tommy to say that it was November in Vancouver and it didn't matter how warm it was in Los Angeles, they were not putting Adrian in the water. Donna added that, after Avatar, there was a moratorium on putting anybody in the Seine.

On one occasion, the script got to within one day of filming when a problem was found. Morrie Ruvinsky had written a story for Season 2 called The Chalice Of Saint Antoine, which was very Paris specific, with monks featuring in the story as well as Amanda. With one day to go till filming, they got a phone call to say that, as Morrie Ruvinsky, although Canadian, lived in the United States, he couldn't write an episode to be filmed in Paris. These kinds of problems got ironed out in later seasons, but right there and then they needed a script, as Elizabeth Gracen was already in the air on her way to Paris. They knew it had to be an Amanda story and David Tynan came up with the idea of what would happen if Amanda's teacher got killed, which became Legacy. Originally, they were going to make Amanda's teacher Mac's enemy, an idea that got recycled in Reunion. Unlike some shows which had a better budget, Highlander did not have a budget for breakage, so every story had to be used. Only one story, an episode called Trust, never got made, as Elizabeth Gracen was not available to film it and, by the time she was, the story no longer fitted within the overall arc of the Highlander story. However, elements of the story did resurface in Take Back The Night.

When they came to film Season 3, they had to rework The Chalice Of Saint Antoine. They said that they broke the story for weeks and that the final script was written in what they elegantly termed a "gang bang". Gillian and the two Davids set to work on Acts 1, 2 and 3, with the first one to finish getting the prize of writing Act 4. The final, polished script, (which brought little resemblance to the original story apart from the inclusion of Amanda and the "Of Saint Antoine"), was sent off to Vancouver - then the phones rang. As Donna put it, you remember the story, Joe's in love, he and Lauren date and dance? Nope, the episodes too long and it's over budget - Lauren can't talk. Yes, Gillian said, Chick #2 has no lines. They had to kill her in the teaser. However, then the phone rang again, only this time it was Dennis Berry, the director. Dennis is fascinated with US history and had fallen in love with the fort where the flashback was set - he wanted the flashback to be longer. At this point, the writers had been working on the Mission Impossible sequence, getting Duncan and Amanda into the museum. Remember the air sucking room? No, I don't either, because it got removed to make way for the bigger fort. They said that it's normal television practice to issue revised pages for a script on a different colour. In this case, an entire new script in pink was issued. Then Dennis Berry did some casting and decided that the actress playing the schoolteacher should have a bigger part. Pieces of blue paper was sent to Vancouver, at which point Adrian got on the phone. He loved the script, but wanted just one little change - he wanted to get shot in the flashback. Another set of revisions were issued and everything seemed OK, until Gillian collated all the changes that have been issued and read what was now the final script. She was horrified to see that Joe left one room twice and, presumably to keep things even, the museum now had one room on two different floors. She revised the script to eliminate the errors and, whilst she was doing it, stuck back in the lines she had liked that had been taken out. She said she should have known better, as the only way that happens is when an actor says what happened to that line he really liked, as had happened with "20 years, six months, what's the difference?", to which Gillian added, "thank-you, Peter Wingfield". Then, Ken Gord rang. "We can't have a museum, how about a house?"

This was the season when they built Joe's bar and there was a memo issued to say that this set should be used as much as possible. However, in this case, they'd used it too much. Normally, the shooting schedule will expect to clear eight script pages per day or four per half day if the locations are reasonably close. In this case, they had 11 pages of script set in Joe's bar, which was just not the right number. However, they had a suggestion as to how this could be fixed - move the breakfast scene from the bar outdoors and have Joe drinking from a brown bag. This idea was quickly scotched, (if you'll pardon the pun), but did resurface in Not To Be. By now, the script is at revision seven. They had a read-through with the actors the night before filming, which produced 25 pages of line changes. After this, the writers could be forgiven for thinking that the script was done, but no. Ken Gord rang and said that the episode was over budget and that they couldn't afford the candyglass for Joe to break when he tries to rescue Lauren. Could he just knock on the door instead? This clearly would not have had the desired effect and so a trade was done, where what would have been a procession on horseback into the fort became a procession on foot and the horse was traded for the candyglass. Even this did not go smoothly, as anyone who's seen the blooper tape will know. Generally, the dailies would arrive in Los Angeles two to three days after filming in Vancouver and anything up to a week after filming in Paris. In the dailies, there's Jim Byrnes bashing the window, but the glass won't break. In the end, he had used a painted crowbar to break the window. Later, Ken Gord would admit at a convention that the candyglass window broke on the way to the set and they had to use real glass, leading Donna and Gillian to claim that "they broke our horse".

They then went on to show us how a scene is edited, using dailies from The Fighter. Originally, it was to have been Tessa who would have been Sully's tutor, but Charlie's part was upgraded after Alexandra Vandernoot's decision to leave. They said that the flashback transition always got its own shot and there was a separate memo about how it was to be done in each episode. The teaching part gave Charlie something to do, but the girl didn't get to speak, so she didn't get paid much. After we had seen all the individual pieces of film, they showed us the scene as it appeared in the final episode, complete with music. I didn't notice this when I first saw this sequence at Chronicles '98, but Charlie's kissing a different girl in the final scene than in the dailies!

They also showed us the car crashes from Diplomatic Immunity. Whilst they could cheerfully bounce the stuntman off the hood of a Mercedes, they couldn't do the same with a Rolls Royce for some reason... They also showed us how post-production sound adds to the final effect, by showing us the attack on Cassandra's village by the Horsemen with and without post-production sound, which added music, horse noises, crowd sounds and a lot more screaming. They then went on to show us how the production crew actually made and the Mochi village in Little Tin God. All that had been built was two halves of two huts and there was no top to the temple, the village being constructed by copying the huts using the postproduction equivalent of cut-and-paste. This technique was used again to create the prisoners of war in Andersonville prison for The Messenger, as they only had 25 extras.

As a further example of what can be done, they showed us the component elements used to make up the temptation scene from Armageddon, where Ahriman offers Joe his legs. They also showed us the Quickening from Prophecy, which prompted Donna to say that one of Adrian's hardest jobs was to make the Quickening look good week after week. She added that he had to feel a fool whilst he was doing it. Sometimes, they were able to bypass the Quickening in the script, as they did with Chivalry, where the script specifically said that they would cut away as the Quickening began, and in Season 6, when they had a reduced budget, they had smaller Quickenings. They said that using blue screen helped them and gave them more options with the actor, as with the final sequence they showed us. This was Richie's Quickening from The Messenger and they claimed that the version they showed us was the version that appeared in the first rough cut of the episode as it came from the editors - this was the infamous Surf's-Up Quickening.

Next, F Braun McAsh takes to the stage...