A Writer’s Diary: October 2015

This week, I’m revising the new pilot. It occurs to me that I didn’t stop working long enough to enjoy the moment of finishing draft one; I was already diving back into the beginning and reorganizing scenes and sections of dialogue. Given the subject matter, which is kind of difficult, I’m especially concerned with getting the tone right. Believe it or not, by the way, when I’m writing the tougher moments, the soundtrack to my personal writer’s room has either been classical with lots of cello, or other soundtracks – or the silliest, perkiest pop music ever recorded.

I’m just gonna say it: Katy Perry’s “Firework” has been on heavy rotation. Don’t judge me.

Despite the seriousness of the storylines, it’s been fun to write the characters, and as usual I have my favorites, which change session to session. They’re what are going to make this (or any) show work. I feel good about my process in coming up with characters, but haven’t gotten the hang of just knowing that I’m telling a story with properly-calibrated obstacles and conflict.

I’ve been hibernating quite a bit to finish this draft, eating and sleeping it, practically. This show is more indicative of the type of  I envision writing generally, while my first pilot, Pirate Queen, is a big action-oriented series with a grand scope. So I want to get the new one ready and start shopping it as well. At this point, I can at least refine the all important logline and pitch for the new show.

Last month, I wrote a post with a colleague for my “day job” blog that crosses over well here, about how to overcome creative blocks. It was a blast collaborating with a visual artist and designer on that; I love getting ideas from other creative folks on how to feed and nurture creativity.

In part, that’s why I’ll be recapping Manhattan when season two premieres next week. Because watching other folks’ stunningly executed complex television is so good for the old confidence. I kid. Of course it’s good to keep consuming and reading new stuff as I’m creating my own work.

And I should wrap up a proper draft of my pilot #2 shortly. Plus, I’m developing a couple of ideas to turn into freelance pitches. In some ways, I feel as though I’m huffing up a lot of stairs to keep up, frankly. That could just be a subconscious preoccupation though, since I work in a sixth floor walkup studio in the city, and our elevator operator and I take the same lunch hour. Which means: BONUS WORKOUTS. I’ve got this, October, but I’m working for it.

Speaking of overcoming blocks, workouts and freelance pitches…this week’s writing class assignment beckons.


Hurry Up and Wait

I should be working on my new pilot script, but it’s been one of those days when it’s very hard to get a good groove going. I’ve got a beat outline, which is the fun part, since it’s sequencing all of the story elements just so. Of course, things will be slightly reworked when I actually write the corresponding scenes, but that’s the shuffle to come.

OK, so there’s more than one fun part.

I’ve been doing a lot of character development, getting into people’s heads, learning about them, and what makes these characters tick. That’s another fun part.

The new project is quite different tonally from PIRATE QUEEN, the pilot I’m currently pitching. As for PQ’s status, I titled this post “Hurry Up and Wait” because that’s a lot of what I’m up to. For now I can just say that there’s been some interest. And I’d rather not jinx anything. I’m glad the television academy recognized Game of Thrones last night at the Emmys, because now I can point out that there’s another exciting show out there, ripe for the buying, with swordplay, political plotting and fierce warriors. And in mine, the lead is a woman and we’ll not be using violence against women as “entertainment”. (I know, SHOCKING.)

One of the reasons I wrote a show that literally has a woman warrior as the lead has to do with how women usually appear in such period action pieces. They’ve been princesses, or damsels in distress, but rarely if ever have they taken matters into their own hands to take care of themselves and the people they love. And even if my show is a bit adult, I want girls to know there are other kinds of women characters out there, including Grace O’Malley, the lead of PQ.

Hopefully, you’ll all get to see her onscreen. That would be another really fun part.

A Writer’s Diary: What’s in the Hopper this September

Hi. It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?

By my count, it’s been about four years since I was blogging here (or anywhere) even semi-regularly. Like many folks who got started in the early 2000s, there came a point when taking a good break was the best thing to do. Then, I was writing a lot for a job. And then, happily, more life kept happening, but it didn’t lend itself to this format. Those were great for different reasons – they’ve led to my current job, among other things – but as time went by, I kept coming back to my folders and notebooks of screenplay and TV series ideas that were sitting, languishing in cabinets and boxes. And one day, I decided it was high time to do something about that.

So I started working on scripts in earnest. I took a couple of workshops and courses, wrote every night and weekend, edited every day to and from work on the train, and lo and behold, I’m now networking and pitching my first TV pilot concept and script. Even more exciting? I’m working on my next script, and incubating the idea for the one after that, even more eager to keep learning and growing as an artist. It’s the most creatively satisfying work I’ve done in recent memory, perhaps even ever.

And that’s the short version of what I’ve been doing for the past year and a half or so. That’s the creative turn that I plan to write more about here as it unfolds.

You can see my first pilot script, PIRATE QUEEN, a period drama about Grace O’Malley, on The Blacklist (if you’re a member) and via Stage 32. If all goes well, we’ll all get to see it on the air. Sooner rather than later would be great.

In the meantime, I’m working on my next pilot script. Until I’ve copyrighted it, I’m keeping the concept under wraps, but it’s a very different show. The story is a provocative contemporary drama about community and family. I’m looking forward to writing it, which should take until early October. And as I said, I’m incubating the idea for the third series, this one a workplace drama. I’m awash in random notes and scribbled names for that one as we speak.

And what else is up next here on Ginsberg’s House?

My two most recent posts are a hint. They’re an episode recap of episode 8 of Manhattan, WGN America’s series about the Manhattan Project, and a season one overview post to bring people up to speed on the show and who’s who on the show.

Here’s the deal with those. I love MANHATTAN, but I wrote the recaps to capitalize on a lot of work I did on a spec script for the show that I wrote last year. (Spec scripts are scripts for shows that are already on the air you do as a writing sample or for educational purposes, not your own original pilot.) I learned a lot while doing so, and I figured this was a good way to make use of that work. I’m throwing some good karma to a show I feel deserves some love, in the hopes that someday, someone else helps do the same for PIRATE QUEEN or another creation o’mine.

To that end, I’m planning to recap season two here, starting in October.

In the meantime, I also have a guest blog post on The Philadelphia Story for Go Into the Story (The Blacklist’s blog).

Happy writing, all!

Manhattan: A Viewers’ Guide

When Manhattan begins, in 1943, World War II is at its gruesome height. The conflict has embroiled 61 countries on four continents, and there have been more than 40 million casualties. The United States and its allies are making slow progress in their fights against the Germans and Japanese armies, and the U.S. and the Germans are racing to create the world’s first atomic bomb. When completed, it will be the most destructive weapon in history. The U.S. effort, code named “The Manhattan Project”, employs some 130,000 people at sites nationwide, most of whom have no idea what they’re really working on.  Moreover, the Army is obsessed with keeping the Project secret; workers are forbidden to discuss their work amongst each other or with their spouses. The Vice President doesn’t even know the project exists. (God knows what they’d have done in a Twitter-ized world.)

Manhattan’s characters work at Project Site Y in New Mexico on “The Hill” – the dusty desert plateau we now know as Los Alamos. They’ve come from all over the world, many with families in tow, to work long hours under intense pressure and live behind barbed wire in sometimes shoddy, Army camp-like conditions. It’s a family-workplace-academic-historical drama, all in one. Betrayals, politics, passions, and characters struggles with love and despair drive the action amidst their desperate quest to create the first atomic bomb.

Do the ends justify the means? That’s the question really driving Manhattan, in big and small ways. To win the war, must they build and drop this bomb on civilians? Manhattan’s stories mainly center on an incredible cast of characters’ personal dramas. Of course, history and science buffs will love the show’s attention to detail, and the writers deserve boatloads of credit, because any science necessary to the story is tended to simply and, even, elegantly. And even if you’re not a science nerd, there’s a lot to love here. Manhattan’s entire cast is brilliant and eminently watchable.

Who’s Who on the Hill

Frank Winter, our grizzled protagonist (John Benjamin Hickey) is a genius of a physicist with horrible social skills, haunted by his stint in World War I, and a master compartmentalizer. Frank deeply cares for his wife and daughter, but his marriage has seen better days. He leads the Project’s implosion team, the Army’s backup plan to their favored design, “Thin Man”.

Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) is a brilliant scientist who had to give up her tenure-track job at Princeton to come to the Hill with her husband Frank. She doesn’t know why they’re actually there, she’s bored to tears, and she’s butting heads with the Army constantly owing to the strict rules everyone, including civilians, must follow. Liza’s also dealing with mental illness, and these circumstances aren’t exactly helpful.

Charlie Isaacs (Ash Zukerman) is the wunderkind brought on board to solve the problems no one else on his team can. Naturally, he and Frank are at odds from moment one. Charlie is literally sick about the moral implications of what they’re building, not unlike some scientists from the real Manhattan Project. In Season One, he’s the deputy director of the “Thin Man” project team.

Abby Isaacs (Rachel Brosnahan, also an Emmy nominee from House of Cards) is a picture-perfect young housewife from an old-money Jewish family in Massachusetts. While Charlie’s off working 80 hours a week, she falls for her neighbor, Elodie. Their affair propels Abby to question her marriage (and herself), whose strings have been pulled at by the Hill’s secrecy – and Frank Winter.

Glen Babbitt (Daniel Stern) is Frank’s mentor and a go-between to Robert Oppenheimer’s office. Babbitt’s been around the block and, other than Liza, is the only person who can tell Frank to shove it when necessary.

Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd), Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham), and “Fritz” Fedowitz (Michael Chernus) are Team Implosion, Frank’s handpicked group of underdog scientists who love, fear, and follow him. The Army’s scary G2 security men lurk around all of their lives and work; of that creepy cohort, the one we’ll come to know and fear most is Occam (The West Wing’s Richard Schiff).

These characters’ world has lost its innocence in a crisis so horrific, and a war so brutal, that ending it by any means necessary feels justifiable to many. To that end, they all have to live and work behind barbed wire amidst nebulous security requirements. We know how part of this story ends: the U.S. builds and sets off the first three atomic bombs – at the Trinity test site, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the more complicated world that you and I live in was born with those bombs, so we’re still grappling with them today. Welcome to the military industrial complex, Gitmo, the NSA collecting data everywhere we go, and Edward Snowden. Manhattan is the story of how that world began.


Here’s the episode-by-episode rundown and high points of Season One. I’m not going to completely spoil things for you, just suggest what makes each episode so marvelous and wonderful and worth your binge-y time. Because they all are. So get thee to Hulu.

Episode 1, “Pilot”

The setup, obviously. Frank tries to keep his engaging bunch of underdogs from getting shut down, and he’s not above using one of them to do it. Charlie and Abby arrive on the Hill and discover that this isn’t “Harvard with sand” and adjust to life without reliable electricity. Oppenheimer commits to backing “Thin Man”, as he “believes the world is on fire, and Thin Man is our chance to put it out.”

Episode 2: “The Prisoner’s Dilemma”

In which Sid Lao, a beloved member of Frank’s implosion team, is shot while trying to escape after the G2 security office investigates him for suspected treason. Abby adjusts to life on the Hill and briefly makes a new friend in Liza, but their bristling husbands spoil a dinner party. Charlie continues to be deeply conflicted about the implications of the bomb they’re building for the civilians who’ll be killed by it.

Episode 3, “The Hive”

Here’s where the show finds its legs. New security rules make the scientists’ work more difficult, sending Frank on a mission requiring his nonexistent diplomatic skills. Liza studies local honeybees, the implosion team grapples with the murder of one of their own, and Paul Crosley surprises us in a quietly powerful ending.

Episode 4, “Last Reasoning of Kings”

Niels Bohr, also known as “God” to the adoring physicists on the Hill, visits the scientists to give a morale boost, and the one he does the most for is Dr. Liza Winter, who’s been idle, listless and depressed. Charlie gets a look at the implosion team’s work and is intrigued. Frank and Paul are marooned in the desert with a broken down car and heavy camera; during their walk home in the dark, we flash back with Frank to his trench service in World War I.

Episode 5, “A New Approach to Nuclear Cosmology”

No good deed of Glen’s goes unpunished, as a petulant Charlie accidentally outs him as a Communist – earning him a trip to the hot seat with G2. Of course, Glen isn’t one; he is, however, gay, a revelation to Frank, and we see the first fissures in his relationship with his longtime mentor.

Episode 6: “Acceptable Limits”

Charlie and Helen take a field trip to another Manhattan Project site in Tennessee, where they discover a mutual attraction. Sparks are flying, too, for Abby – with her neighbor Elodie. After Fritz accidentally ingests some plutonium (don’t ask), Frank discovers the Hill’s radiation monitoring program is, well, not real. Liza keeps finding more clues that hint at a big scientific mystery.

Episode 7: “The New World”

In Tennessee, Helen and Charlie help avert a dangerous crisis at the Oak Ridge site, with the help of another brilliant and underutilized scientist there. Abby’s still fretting over their work trip, of course, but it just leads her closer to Elodie. Frank and Liza help Paloma’s family have a traditional funeral ceremony for her brother, who’s been killed in the Pacific. And things get a whole lotta awkward in Paloma’s cabin, which Liza comments is “just Frank’s kind of place”. Oh, Liza.

Episode 8, “The Second Coming”

Abby sneaks off base for a secret visit with her parents, traveling through Santa Fe on a train, and all goes well until she’s busted by security…and tries to get out of trouble with the Army by claiming distress over her missing Jewish relatives in Europe. But an Army officer trying to be helpful brings her intelligence photographs that force her to confront the reality of the Holocaust. She implores Charlie to do something, anything to help. Turns out, that ultimately leads him to go, hat in hand, to see Frank. Glen helps Liza get a security clearance, discovering a secret of hers along the way, by blackmailing someone else with one.

Episode 9, “Spooky Action at a Distance”

Frank’s affair with Paloma is going to come out…unless he can provide a truck. Lucky for him, his new pal, the Army’s prickly, amazing Russian weapons expert (played by Peter Stormare!) can help. Liza finally gets a job, but she doesn’t like what she sees when she takes a Geiger counter for a spin around the Hill’s hospital nursery. Charlie poaches Helen for Thin Man’s team, really to help him get a ton of math done for Frank without anyone noticing.

Episode 10, “ The Understudy”

Sid Liao’s widow, Annie, comes to town demanding answers about her husband’s death from Occam, the Army’s scary interrogator (Richard Schiff). Frank and Charlie join forces with Lazar, and amazing repartee (and science!) ensues. Liza tries to show Frank the terrifying levels of radiation she’s found on every surface of their home, but as he, and we, can see, the Geiger counter isn’t, um, counting. Fortunately, she’s got some psych meds handy. Unfortunately, this probably means no one’s going to take her warning seriously.

Episode 11, “Tangier”

Charlie needs to make it look like his rival Tom Lancefield is stealing secrets from the Hill, rather than exposing himself and Frank as collaborators. He thinks that Abby is just great friends with Tom’s wife, Elodie (oh, Charlie) so asks her to plant some papers beneath the Lancefields’ floorboards. Of course, Abby’s been daydreaming about stealing away for good with Elodie – so this couldn’t have come at a worse time, really.

Episode 12, “The Gun Model”

Season One’s penultimate episode is a whopper, with another death we don’t see coming. It also features a rare moment of triumph for Liza and some downright wily maneuvering by Glen on behalf of implosion. Frank and Charlie’s worlds are giving way beneath their feet.

Episode 13, “Perestroika”

The finale. Charlie’s brought in for questioning by G2 and thinks his very life may end, only to be thrust into a position he never saw coming. Frank does either the most selfish or selfless thing he’s done all season, depending on your perspective, in a stunning scene with Liza. He thinks he’s protecting his family and the project – but will Liza and the U.S. Army agree?

That extra-long and explosive finale left us hanging on a few fronts, with lots of questions we’re looking for answers to in Season Two. Here be huge spoilers, folks.

  1. Is Frank alive? In jail, and under whose authority? Is he going to lie some more to get himself out of mortal danger? Knowing Frank, anything is possible. What seemed a great idea – setting Charlie up to take over and sacrificing himself – may not seem so clever the next morning.
  2. Will Liza stay with him? Is she alright? What will she do with herself, now that she’s been elected to the local government? Methinks the Army’s got itself a new problem there.
  3. Is G2 going to catch Meeks, the brilliantly-named spy? And who’s he working with, anyway? The Soviets?
  4. How are Charlie and Abby going to navigate coming to the brink of divorce only to, (presumably) stay together as one of the most powerful couples on The Hill?

“I thought we were beyond all this…”

Cincinnati’s pervasive tensions around race, class, and gender inequality were omnipresent for those of us who lived there in 2001. In particular, the successive shootings of unarmed African American men by police officers was something of a shock–seriously, how many were there in a row since 2000? Too many, so when Tim Thomas fell in April, the city erupted in protest and unrest.  Hundreds, later thousands, of community members came together to organize nonviolent protests, and early on, we gathered in churches. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth lived in Cincinnati then, and it was his legacy (among many others) which inspired many of us who never thought we’d have occasion to march for civil rights to get involved. It was life-changing, humbling and permanently affected my perspective on public affairs and our society. Divisions still run too deep, and as painful, uncomfortable, and sometimes confusing it is, I believe it is up to us to grapple with that idealistic vision of Dr. King: to be judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin. What does that really mean? That is an ongoing distillation.

Interviewed at the time about unrest in the city where he had lived since the 1960s, Rev. Shuttlesworth said of Cincinnati that “I thought we were beyond all this” in reference to (as I recall, anyway) the destruction, fires, and more violent components of those few days in April. It was sickening and sobering to realize that we weren’t.

Learning of Shuttlesworth’s death on Wednesday (along with Steve Jobs and Derrick Bell) brought to mind some old Irish superstition about deaths occurring in threes. What a tremendous, momentous loss for us all with these. But of the three, it was the loss of Shuttlesworth which gave me an emotional pause, thanks to those intense days ten years ago.

new boozy city

My favorite bit of narration from Prohibition, Parts II & III:

Consumption dropped in every major city, and everywhere in the United States, except in New York City, where it went up. New Yorkers then as now did NOT enjoy being told what to do and took to drinking in defiance.

Heh. Yeah, I could’ve guessed.

Another favorite tale: a woman at grad school in Cambridge (Radcliffe?) applied that intellectual talent (with a roommate) to making homemade beer. It blew up, thus spoiling an otherwise promising weekend, no doubt.

All of these stories–up to and including the spawn of what we now know as the mob–make for quite the tale of “crime, corruption and hypocrisy.”

Oh, and did anyone else catch the right to privacy first articulated thanks to Justice Brandeis?  Or a hero of New York politics, Al Smith? Imagine a politician today standing up for his or her convictions regardless of losing a general election, because that’s what Smith did after denouncing the strengthening KKK.

It was quite something hearing from The New Yorker’s Lois Long (aka “Lipstick”) who could be a blogger recapping her night somewhere on the Lower East Side circa 2011 : these are the tales which cemented the legendary flappers in New York’s imagination, I’m sure.

At last, Burns gets back to gender in the 1920’s, and brings up a phenomenon you’ll see again in the wake of 2nd wave American feminism: an incredibly politicized generation of feminist activists appalled at the sexualized behavior of their daughters. My delightful discovery, thanks to this doc, was that of Pauline Sabin, the blue-blood Republican who stood for repeal and against the Women’s Christian Temperance Union because she felt offended that they purported to stand for all American women.

Definitely worth a viewing–so put this one in your queue for a winter’s weekend, if not sooner! I’m impressed at Burns’ brevity here: there is more than enough material to have gone on far longer, and this film is fairly “tight” for him, clocking in at around six hours. It’s also genuinely insightful in terms of how long certain political and cultural debates have been with us as a nation, which is to say–as always–longer than we thought.

prohibition, part 1

It was interesting to see so many of the issues I’ve worked on in policy and feminist history show up throughout the first installment of Ken Burns’ Prohibition.

Kudos to Burns for tracing the history of women’s activism in terms of the temperance movement in the 19th century–they are absolutely intertwined. It is amazing to reread the history of temperance seeing “alcohol” as code for domestic violence, marital rape and financial ruin if paychecks were brought directly to taverns where they could be cashed and spent in full. This did not encompass every single drinker’s behavior, thank goodness, but it has always interested me to think about how easily we can use one identifiable so-called “evil” as a stand-in for far more amorphous social problems (then and now).

Last year, I spent a lot of time doing research on New York’s alcohol policy, and the same arguments from the 19th century about the city’s “vice neighborhoods” now appear as battles over the efficacy of allowing “nightlife districts”. Watching Burns’ documentary, you see history repeat itself over and over again. In America, fights over alcohol  have been going on in the background of our politics forever–one way or another.