7-part series on going from original TV pilot script to network series.
On May 24, 2013, I posted about a TV pilot spec script which had Hollywood all abuzz:
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the Hollywood development world — movies and TV — nothing shifts the tectonic plates of The Biz more than a spec script that gets people salivating over it. It’s also a time when writers can learn an awful lot about the buying pulse of Hollywood.
Such is the case right now as Hollywood froths over a 56-page spec TV pilot “Extant” written by newcomer Mickey Fisher. Background from TheWrap [emphasis added]:
Mickey Fisher, an unknown and unsigned writer until recently, has film studios drooling over his script “Extant” for weeks. There’s just one twist: it’s not a film script.
Fisher wrote “Extant” as a TV pilot. It’s a one-hour sci-fi drama about John and Molly Watts and their son, a human-like robot named Ethan. Molly, the space-traveling wife, is also pregnant with a baby that is part human and part alien. The family intrigue deepens in subsequent episodes.
Multiple agencies sought to sign the writer after reading the script, and WME won out. WME and manager Brooklyn Weaver, who discovered Fisher, sent the script around to the studios who are hot to trot for a high-concept script mixing sci-fi and familial drama.
“Everyone is freaking out about it,” an agent at a rival firm said. “It’s ‘A.I.’ as a TV series.”
Warner Bros. still made an offer to acquire the project and turn it into a movie, according to multiple individuals inside and outside the studio, but now the studio is talking with Fisher about acquiring a different pitch. The studio declined to comment.
WME and Weaver always harbored dreams of turning “Extant” into a TV series with Steven Spielberg producing. They are halfway there: Amblin TV, which produced “ER” and “The Americans,” is developing and packaging it. It remains unclear if Spielberg will take a credit, though his involvement would make it even more attractive to networks.
Here is Mickey Fisher. Apparently he is a Hollywood outsider. He writes a spec TV pilot script. It turns the town on its head. Now he has interest from movie studios. TV networks. Perhaps “acquiring a different pitch.” Steven Freaking Spielberg.
That script turned into a CBS series which ran for two seasons.
In 2016, Mickey Fisher — a long-time fan of the blog — posted this:
Writers, here's a DropBox link to short account of my experience writing/selling EXTANT. Free to DL, RT and share. https://t.co/lJ1gbjrEpy
It’s a tremendous read with lots of information and insights into the craft, so I reached out to Mickey and he agreed to let me serialize his entire missive. It’s a great story and I’ll use the opportunity to spotlight the many takeaways Mickey touches on in his observations.
Today in Part 1: Mickey talks about his background as a writer and delves into the process of writing the script for “Extant”:
WHY I WROTE THIS:
Over the past few years I’ve had requests from people asking if I had time to sit down for coffee so they could pick my brain about my experience creating and selling EXTANT. It’s often difficult to make that happen in person so I decided to write down common pieces of advice I received or parts of my story that might help someone else. If you don’t know my story…
The short version is: I went to college for Musical Theater at The University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music. While I was there a lot of my professors told me that because I was a character actor it might be awhile before I was right for a lot of the roles I’d be playing, maybe it wouldn’t even happen until my forties. So I decided to start writing roles for myself instead. By the time I finished school I wanted to be a writer as much as I wanted to be an actor, and over the next twenty years learned to write plays, movies and television. The day I turned forty years old I sold my first big script, a tv pilot for a new show called EXTANT. One of the Executive Producers was Steven Spielberg, it starred Oscar Winner Halle Berry, and got a straight to series order for thirteen episodes from CBS. I was made an Executive Producer as well and spent two years learning how to make television at the highest level. It was my first job in Hollywood.
A lot of people are going to tell you that it NEVER happens that way. But Goddamnit, it DID happen and to quote David Mamet from THE EDGE, “What one man (or woman) can do, another man (or woman) can do.” So I’m passing along what I learned from my personal experience. I know it’s not going to happen for everyone the same way and there will be plenty here that other people will disagree with. This is just one guy’s overall experience from writing the pilot to selling it. It doesn’t cover making the show. I’m offering it to you in the hope that some part of it may be useful. I won’t make any assumptions about your experience/expertise, apologies if this seems like basic common sense or stuff you already know. I’ll start with…
HOW I WROTE THE SCRIPT:
By the time I sat down to really write my first pilot, I realized that I knew very little about writing television. I’d been writing plays for almost twenty years and writing feature films for nearly that long. As much as I LOVED television I didn’t know how to write it. So I spent a few months really looking at the structure and rhythm of my favorite shows. I took a number of episodes of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, BREAKING BAD and DOCTOR WHO and watched them with a remote in one hand and a notebook in the other. I made note of how many acts there were in each one, how many scenes were in an act, and the approximate length of each scene. I did this over and over again, with probably twenty episodes in all over three months.
After that, I wrote a pilot for a show called HOPEWELL that was kind of a practice pilot about a small midwestern town where strange supernatural things began to occur. At the time I was using CELT-X screenwriting software on my iPad and it had a template for a Bible, with sub-categories for Characters, Timelines, etc. I got into filling all of those things out, imagining the world and the longer arcs for the characters. That first one was just ok.
Then I followed one of the most important pieces of writing you can get: write the show or movie you would want to watch. Until then I’d been writing what I knew, keeping my stories small and contained, stuff I could shoot on my own for very little money in my hometown in Ohio. But I realized that the stuff I was writing is not the first thing I would go see if I was looking at a film festival brochure or deciding what to see on a Friday night. I was a genre guy, have been my whole life. My earliest memory (other than my youngest sister being brought home from the hospital for the first time) is seeing STAR WARS. In fact, I’m listening to THE FORCE AWAKENS soundtrack as I write this. So what came out was a sci-fi thriller about what it means to be human, wrapped up in a story about a female astronaut who goes to space on a solo mission and comes back pregnant to her husband and android child.
I wrote the first draft of the pilot over a month and then did a lot of rewriting after. I was conscious about laying the pipelines for a serialized story and where these characters might go and conscious about the world the story took place in. A lot of the technology was grounded in stuff I was reading on Wired or finding on Reddit, stuff that’s going to be available to everyone in the near future. I didn’t realize it at the time but grounding it in reality was a big selling point.
After the pilot was finished, I did one of the most important things I could have ever done. On instinct, I wrote a 6 page or so SEASON/SERIES OVERVIEW DOCUMENT for myself, imagining where this story and these characters would go after the pilot. Only my girlfriend and a couple of friends knew anything about the script at this point, so this was strictly for myself, to help me understand more about what I was doing. I was basically taking what was in the Celt-X bible template but putting it in prose form, like a treatment. It wasn’t until over a year later that I realized HOW IMPORTANT this step was. In the end, it would prove to be important not just as a presentation document but it also gave me a bedrock of information to mine in future meetings when people asked insightful questions about where it was all going. I hear some writers talk about having a full six or seven season arc planned out for the characters and that all sounds great, but in my experience, you don’t need that much. You want to show you have an understanding and know WHY you made the choices that you did. It’s ok to not have ALL the answers and you also want to leave room for collaboration.
Because I had fallen in love with these characters, I took it one step further: I wrote a second episode for myself, basically creating my own fan fiction for a show that didn’t exist yet. Very few people know about it and we never used it other than mining it for a few ideas later, like Ethan getting into a public school and the problems that arose. But again, it gave me more ammunition for going into later meetings. I’ve heard writers ask about writing their whole season of scripts on spec and I even thought about that myself once. I can tell you now that going that far would have been a waste of time. Once you start working with other people there are all kinds of new ideas and notes about things that aren’t working. For instance, I had originally intended the character eventually named Yasumoto to be a kind of “man who fell to Earth” character, an alien from a different species. If I’d written thirteen episodes based on that being an enormous part of the mythology, I would have had to go back to square one. And that’s long before you get to issues with actors, production demands, audiences not responding to characters, etc. I don’t think you need to write more than one. Two at the most.
Again, looking back, I lucked into doing this for myself even though no one was asking for it. Once the pilot script started getting me meetings, I was hit with tons of questions about where I thought the story was going. Because I had done all of this work, I had a ton of answers. I think that’s a large part of why I got to stick around for as long as I did. I had a vision for what this could be and after living with it and doing this kind of work I was able to articulate it.
- By the time I sat down to really write my first pilot, I realized that I knew very little about writing television: One of the keys to writing well is being honest about what parts of the craft you know… and what you don’t know. Since you are competing against the best screenwriters and TV writers in the world, you need to do whatever you must to up your game in all areas and on all fronts.
- I spent months really looking at the structure and rhythm of my favorite shows: If you want to learn story structure for TV or film, there is perhaps no better way than actually watching produced content and breaking it down — act by act, scene by scene. William Goldman famously said, “Screenplays are structure,” and this truism pertains as much, if not even more, to television as it does to movies.
- I got into… imagining the world and the longer arcs for the characters: When you write a TV pilot or a movie, you are in effect creating a story universe. Even if that universe is a common American suburb, you need to immerse yourself in lives its characters and the specifics of that sub-culture because in that way, you reveal the unique, compelling personality of that place and its people, transforming what appears to be typical into something distinctive and entertaining.
- Write the show or movie you would want to watch: Don’t just write any story, rather find one you are passionate about… and write that. That is likely the only way you will have the stamina and persistence to write and rewrite it until it’s great. Moreover when your passion comes through a script, the words magically lift up off the page directly into the minds-eye of the reader.
- So what came out was a sci-fi thriller about what it means to be human: While your story may very well have multiple themes, find the one which lies at the core of its emotional meaning. That can be the touchstone you use to inform every major and even minor choice you make in writing your script.
- A lot of the technology was grounded in stuff I was reading on Wired or finding on Reddit: Do your research. While you may not be writing a documentary, your story universe has to feel authentic, and to gain the trust of a reader, you must demonstrate to a reader you know this place and these characters.
- I wrote a 6 page or so SEASON/SERIES OVERVIEW DOCUMENT for myself, imagining where this story and these characters would go after the pilot… Because I had fallen in love with these characters, I took it one step further: I wrote a second episode for myself: This recalls the Iceberg Theory of Writing wherein the script itself represents 10% of the iceberg which appears above the surface of the water, but all your character and plot work amounts to the 90% below the surface. Again immerse yourself in the story universe, know your characters, and imagine what each of their narrative fates could be.
In sum, do enough to hit the sweet spot Mickey did by the time he had gotten his spec script into shape to send it out into the world: I had a vision for what this could be and after living with it and doing this kind of work I was able to articulate it.
Tomorrow in Part 2, Mickey reveals what happened after he wrote the script and how that jump-started a process which eventually led to “Extant” becoming a prime-time major broadcast network TV series.
Mickey is repped by WME and Energy Entertainment.
UPDATE: Mickey recreated his magic with a spec TV project called “Reverie”:
Like Extant, Reverie originated as a spec. Penned by Fisher, it is described as a grounded and dramatic thriller about a former detective specializing in human behavior who is brought in when the launch of an advanced virtual reality program has dangerous and unintended consequences.
Fisher was an unknown writer when sci-fi spec Extant won an online screenwriting contest and was picked up by Amblin TV, sparking a bidding war before landing at CBS with a straight-to-series order with Halle Berry signing on to star.
Similarly, Fisher sent the first draft of Reverie to Frank and Falvey, who boarded the project to develop and produce the script. It was taken out to the marketplace during pitch season, garnering interest from multiple networks and ultimately landing at NBC.
It appears lightning DOES strike twice!
Mickey Fisher on Writing, Selling, and Producing a TV Pilot Spec Script — Part 1 was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.