Go to Homepage   Stephen J. Cannell - Continued

 

…became best friends. We went to lunch together and hung together.

[Bochco] was working on Columbo, which was one of the most sought after shows on the lot. I was working on Adam-12, which was thought of as an also-ran, creatively. Although I thought it was a great show. I really enjoyed working on it.

Crescent Blues: It was all about structure.

Stephen J. Cannell: It had an interesting structure. We had one spine story that would run through the half-hour. Then we'd have a lot of different stories -- helping the old lady get the cat out of the tree; the two guys that are holding up the 7-11™, and we roll in on it while it's going down -- and a story that played between the two principals. It was a fun show to write, and it taught me a lot about writing. I still use what I learned on Adam-12.

The problem is, you hit a character on page 15, and you'd be off that character on page 19, and that character had to be alive. You had three pages to make that character happen.

I learned that it was very important that a character have a yesterday and have a tomorrow, and that the character's attitude be reflective of both. For example, if a woman was reporting the crime, I would have her late to traffic court. That ticket happened yesterday. First, she'd try to get the cops to fix the ticket. She'd tell them what she wanted to do. "But look, I've got to get to traffic court…." She had a life she was living.

Because of this device, in three pages I could create a fully rounded, fairly complete character. I still use that technique. I discovered it on Adam-12, because I would write scenes, and they would feel flat to me. Information, just information. Now, all of a sudden, that woman reporting a crime became a character -- and a funny character, because she had something she was doing in her life, and reporting the crime was an inconvenience.

I wrote so much during the Adam-12 years. I was there two years, and I must have written 35 of those episodes.

The Writers Guild contract at that time made it possible to pay you a flat rate. [Universal was] paying me a flat weekly rate. So I made $50,000 in pay scale, but I wrote $150,000 worth of scripts. They were way ahead with me, compared to if they'd gone to freelancers.

I thought, it's bound to pay off. After that, I got a call from Sid Scheinberg, who was the head of Universal Television. He said, "I want you to write a pilot for me." (It was actually for Jack Webb.) I got my first pilot, because I was so productive, the studio felt they had to pay me back. And they did.

So I went from being a writer that nobody even knew on the lot, but when they did the financial review at the end of the year -- "There's got to be a mistake here!" [Laughs.]

Buy from Amazon today.Crescent Blues: Do you think that being dyslexic helped you develop dialogue?

Stephen J. Cannell: I don't know that it did. I think what being dyslexic has helped me to do is to work very hard.

I was always the stupidest kid in my class. I was a football player, a halfback. I got my point of view, my sense of self-worth from football. I could read about myself in the Los Angeles paper. When I went to school, I was a big deal. I can't spell, and I can't pass math, and I'm doing chemistry for the third time, but I made six touchdowns on Friday. There was something about that that kept me from becoming a defeated personality.

Then I went to Adam-12, and actors would come to me and say, "God, your material is so good." Then I would hear the word "brilliant," and "genius" was actually linked in one sentence with my name. Never happened before.

I'm not a genius, and I'm not brilliant. I work really hard, but whew, it felt good.

Deep in my subconscious, I thought I was stupid. Even though I'd managed to walk past it and threw the cat in the corner and didn't look at it, it was there. I knew I was stupid. I thought that from my academic experience.

The reason I wrote so many scripts when I was on Adam-12 is that when I would write one, they would say, "This is great." Yeah! Yeah! OK! And I would do another one.

So I set up this work ethic for myself -- and I still have it -- where I can write a novel in 50 days. It isn't that it's going to be the exact book that ends up being published, because I rewrite it and rewrite it.

Crescent Blues: But you produce a 400-page draft in 30 days. That's an achievement in itself, as anyone who's ever written anything -- fiction or non-fiction -- can tell you.

Stephen J. Cannell: But I'm prepared to fail too. And I don't believe that everything I write is going to be brilliant.

A lot of writers put that on themselves. They have to be brilliant. "After all, universities are going to study this stuff long after I'm dead, so it's got to be perfect." And of course, it's not perfect. We're all works in progress, and we all have huge holes in our personalities that we're working on. So we get caught between the idea of being brilliant and writing.

Don't miss this. Order today.That's what causes writers' block. "This isn't brilliant, so I can't write it." That's what causes procrastinating and delaying and putting off and all that.

Well, if you've spent your whole life being the stupidest kid in the class, brilliant isn't… [Shrugs.] I just sit down and write to please myself. I don't have any weight on my shoulders at all. I'm just going.

Then I read it. I'm a very stern critic, because I hold myself up against the writers I admire. So if I read my stuff, and I go: This isn't as good as Michael Collins's stuff; this isn't as good as -- pick the writer that you like. I've got to rework it. I've got to make it better.

I don't marry my stuff. I don't believe I do. I'm just a guy who tries really hard.

I have my own scale of one to 10 for my work, because I figure God gave me a certain equipment, and that's what I've got. I own that equipment. It isn't going to come and go. I don't believe in burn-out. I suppose Alzheimer's could take it away. But mostly, I believe what's in your head is yours.

There will be times when you've got to write a story you aren't connected to, or the story has an emotional or plot dishonesty to it. You're going to have trouble writing that story. And that's going to make you say: "I've lost it. I'm creatively burned out." No. All that's saying is that there's something about the story that's fighting you. That's all. You own your equipment.

So when I work, I just say: "On my scale of one to 10, what was today's work?" If it's a seven or eight, OK. Every now and then I get a nine. [Lifts hand and makes a sound like a rocket blasting off a launch pad.]

If it's a six or a five or a three, and I read it the next morning and go, "What was I thinking?" I try to fix it, try to get it up to a six or seven. I won't accept anything less than a seven, and I want nines.

Then I'll read somebody else's work, and I'll go: "Well, this guy or gal just writes better than me. That's all." And I've got something to shoot at now, something to aim for.

If I think I'm the best writer I know, and I think I'm doing it right, I'm never going to grow. But if I always view myself as somebody that has some talent who is working really hard to make that talent grow, then I'm going to keep growing and somewhere down the line I will get as far up that tree as I can possibly get.

And I don't expect anybody to study this stuff in universities. If that happens, I'll be laughing.

Jean Marie Ward