Austin Cinematic Limits

Okay, I admit it. I used to watch Dawson’s Creek – only the first two seasons though, and I only watched it for its dialogue. Really! Other than introducing me to the acting talent of Michelle Williams, Dawson’s Creek also provided me with a glimpse of Rob Thomas‘s writing style. Though Thomas was only credited as a writer on two episodes during season one – Prelude to a Kiss and In the Company of Men – his knack for whip-smart dialogue really left an impression on me. Nonetheless, I was always too embarrassed to admit to ever watching Dawson’s Creek.

Six years later, I got hooked on Veronica Mars – which Thomas created, executive produced, wrote 64 episodes of, and directed two episodes for. I used to get mocked and ridiculed by friends for watching a television series about a teenage detective, but I didn’t care. The writing was so incredibly intelligent, the music was fantastic (I love the Britt Daniel karaoke scene in season two), and I actually got all of the pop culture references; so I felt like the series was written for me, not teenagers.

With the cancellation of Veronica Mars came Party Down – a television series created by Thomas, John Enbom, Dan Etheridge, and Paul Rudd. Other than serving as a co-creator and executive director, Thomas was not very involved in Party Down; he co-wrote the unaired pilot and one episode for season one (most of his time was relegated to working on Cupid for ABC). Nonetheless, Party Down still bares the undeniable mark of Thomas’ sensibilities.

On April 18, the Austin Film Festival is hosting a Conversation with Rob Thomas to discuss developing a television pilot and series, using Party Down as a case study. Thomas will then present the first ever public screening of the unaired pilot for Party Down. (More info)

Oh, and a lot of people do not know that Thomas spent his formative years in Central Texas. Thomas graduated from San Marcos High School and went to Texas Christian University; he eventually transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, where he graduated in 1987 with a degree in History.

Film School Rejects caught up with Thomas to discuss his inevitable return to Austin, how he develops new television series and his approach to writing dialogue.

Forgive my ignorance, but I had no idea that you had moved back to Austin.

Yeah, I’ve been back in Austin for two and half years now.

What brought you back?

Los Angeles was a fantastic place to be single and thirty. Austin is a much better place to be a 46-year old family man. I have great friends here. I get to walk my kid three blocks to a great public school. It is just a lifestyle thing. My parents – who were not keen on moving to Los Angeles – have moved here. My life is revolving more around family than work, but it is true that I know the American Airlines flight schedule by heart.

Also, when I moved back to Austin, I had just sold a pitch to Starz – where I had Party Down – about an Austin rock band. Everything was progressing along on that so I thought we were going to be making that show. I would be living in Austin making ten episodes a year, for a network that I had a great time on, doing a show about Austin. The fact that I didn’t end up doing that job has not made me change my mind about moving to Austin, but it was a part of the initial decision.

Do you find it more difficult to be a television writer based in Austin?

I could not be writer – certainly not a television writer – in Austin if I had not done the 14 years in L.A. For someone who is thinking of breaking into the business, you must be in L.A.

Living in Austin does prevent me from going on staff for someone else’s show. There could be good money in that, but it is not really what I want to do. So, I do lose some opportunities for work. I’ve done two pilots in the last year, and I spent five months flying to L.A. on Monday mornings and back to Austin on Friday nights. That was no fun. If I can figure out a way to make television here – or be on planes or in corporate housing less – I would love it, because Austin is much more relaxed.

How do you typically approach developing your ideas for a new television series?

Some are just simple, original ideas that hit you in the shower and just don’t let go. You explore that. What is the concept? What is the story engine? From week to week, what are people going to be tuning in to see happen? Who are your lead characters? I spend a ton of time on characters, concept, story engine…I used to spend too much time knowing the pilot episode backwards and forwards.

I’ve gotten bogged down in pitches but I’ve been doing some things differently in the last few years. I am doing a better job of keeping pitches between 15 and 18 minutes and I memorize my pitches. I used to think that I knew the idea so well that I could go into a meeting and speak extemporaneously for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes…and sometimes I would. I felt like my pitches were too long and that I was meandering. So I have started writing out the pitch and then memorizing it, like the world’s longest soliloquy. It puts so much pressure on me, but I’ve had a lot more success doing pitches that way.

Sometimes its the cache of who you will be working with. I had a meeting with Owen Wilson six months ago and we bonded because we both tried to track down the rights to a piece of non-fiction by a Texas Monthly writer Sam Gwynne. He wrote Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, and we were both obsessed with that book. We had that in common and we were both from Austin…Owen started sending me things. He sent me a story that had been on This American Life about a guy going through a mid-life crisis and he decides to go to Baha, Mexico and track down kidnappers. It wasn’t my idea, but I had to take this story from This American Life and determine how to adapt it into a television show. We just pitched it at HBO, Showtime, AMC and FX. All of them have made offers on it, so that one is feeling good.

When people think of Rob Thomas, the first thing that comes to their mind is typically your dialogue. How do you approach writing dialogue?

I think that I do have a style, I mean its not like I am the only one who writes in this style…There are some great naturalistic writers – I couldn’t love Freaks and Geeks or Friday Night Lights more than I do. Both of those shows are written in such a way that teenagers sound like teenagers. That is not what I do. My stuff is pretty stylized.

I am a huge fan of Heathers. That was the first script I ever read. I was so intrigued by it. I am certainly not writing as stylized as that, but it is closer to where I am going. I let my characters say things as if they got to think about it for a while — Veronica Mars always gets to say the quippy thing back, she’s rarely at a loss for words, rarely does she say the vanilla line. I think that sounds a bit more stylized when you place that dialogue in the mouths of teenagers. In Party Down, like when Henry speaks, it tends to sound less stylized; because that is a smart, 30-something, L.A. hipster, so it is believable that he is clever.

I taught high school yearbook for several years and I had all of these teen girl voices in my head. I am absolutely trying to get to the emotional truth of what they are saying and what they are concerned about, but I tend to let them be a little more clever than kids normally talk.

How do you approach writing for young characters?

I wrote my first novel – Rats Saw God – when I was 28-years old and it was about an 18-year old. When I wrote it, I believed that I was writing a novel about an 18-year old for an audience of my peers. Thematically, language-wise, the smartness of the characters in it – I wanted it to be something that I would read, that my friends would read and be intrigued by and not feel like “Oh, that’s a kid’s book.” When Simon & Schuster bought the book and published it as a young adult novel, it taught me to not think about the fact that I am writing about kids; and, as much as possible, put that out of my mind and treat the reader (or viewer) as though they were me. As though I am trying to entertain myself, rather than trying to put it through the filter of whether a kid would like it. I try to write it like I would like it and assume that the younger audience will take it – but I have never had a hit show, so maybe it is a bad philosophy.

Now that I have a 7-year old, I watch a lot of Nickelodeon shows and I know that those writers do need to be conscious of their audience; but when I watch any of those Pixar movies, they have stories and dialogue working on levels for kids and grandparents and everyone in between. That is a real highwire act that I respect. There are a lot of really smart jokes in those Pixar movies and some really big thematic ideas.

Cinematic Things To Do in Austin This Week:

4/17 – Alamo South Lamar – AFS’ Essential Cinema Series — SEEFest Austin: Films of Southeast Europe — continues with Srdan Golubovic’s The Trap. (More info)

4/17 – Alamo South Lamar – Alamo Drafthouse and aGLIFF co-present a special screening of Bullhead. Prior to the screening, aGLIFF will be hosting an informal mixer at the Gibson Bar. (More info)

4/19 – Republic Square Park (Rolling Roadshow) - Off-Centered Film Fest kicks off with a Blazing Saddles Quote-Along featuring a huge array of local craft beers, cap guns, beans and pies. (More info)

4/22 – The Driskill Hotel - Austin Film Festival presents A Conversation with Whit Stillman as a prelude to a free advance screening of Damsels in Distress at Alamo Village (4/23). (More info)

What’s better for you than Austin BBQ? More Austin Cinematic Limits


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