What: Bill Train, respected lead anchor for a major network, appears to have gone off the rails because he has begun verbally, and in some cases physically, attacking congressional hypocrites and corporate liars.
Who: Bill Train is causing increasing consternation at his network with his brutal honesty and refusal to follow the directives and mandates issued by corporate executives.
Int. News Studio – Evening
Train: These people, these men and women that declare themselves leaders, however passively, they ask something of us...they ask us to believe. Maybe the hardest thing possible. Who are you? Why do you deserve me and my trust? Why should I give you one single moment of my time? And in an instant, in just a hint...they show us that feck of hope. That greatness lying dormant. They show us possibility.
The voice from above. It almost comes from nowhere:
Voice: (O.C.) That’s great, Bill. You’re the voice. We believe. Take us home.
Train pauses hard. The camera doesn’t break. It almost seems to be asking for the capper. Train breaks right.
Train: Congressman Wyatt...
A 50-year-old basks in the accolades, however faux-humbly. A head tilt, a slight blush.
Train: ...in a landscape constantly riddled with paranoia, with injustice, with outright malice...how do you find yourself in a position to even pretend to represent the will of the people?
Congressman Wyatt doesn’t hesitate a beat.
Congressman Wyatt: Well, that’s easy Bill. I don’t pretend. I live and die by my constituency. They are my voice.
Train dwells on this like holy writ. A hard turn back to the camera.
Train: Congressman Gregory Wyatt, vox populi. I’m William Train. I tell you the news. Without bias, and without guile. Good night.
Theme music starts to play. Pleasant and familiar. Train grins passively as the lights change and the camera swoops out. Congressman Wyatt smiles in the fading TV glow.
Voice: (O.C.) Pulling out. You nailed it, Bill. We’re good in five, four, three...
Camera is back and we see the full newsroom studio. Train waits at the desk for the all clear.
Voice: (O.C.) ...two, one...and we’re clear.
Train rears a fist back and DECKS Congressman Wyatt full on. Nearly knocks him out of his seat.
Train: You try that shit in my news room again and I’ll knock you on your ass in front of that half-wit constituency of yours!
Wyatt is shocked stupid, hand to jaw.
Congressman Wyatt: What the hell...?
Int. News Studio – Control Booth
Paul Davis, 40, the voice in the sky, but really the handler, blanches with all too familiar horror.
Davis: Oh, Christ...SOMEBODY! SOMEBODY! (into a mic) Stop Bill!
Through the glass booth an intimidated young line producer motions hands out.
Line Producer: (from Mic) How?
Davis: Use a tranc gun!
INT. NEWS STUDIO – CONTINUOUS
Train looms over the stunned Congressman.
Train: You want to pump somebody from behind and then look them square in the eye after you’re done and tell them it’s ‘cuz you’re their pal you go over to one of those little Ted Turner shouting monkey shows!
Congressman Wyatt: You’re out of your mind!
All the producers and grips are baffled. Train bristles as Wyatt’s handlers and the line producer come rushing out.
Train: I’m out of my mind!? I’m not the one out stumping for peace, justice, and the American way and then snookering my campaign manager while my postpartum wife’s at home hiding in the closet.
All look aghast, including, yes, the foxy young campaign manager that helps Wyatt up.
Train: (to the fox) Yes, that would be you, sugar. You’re the king’s whore.
The line producer pulls Train back while Wyatt and his crew scurry out of the room. Close
This latest incident, of which recently there have been many, brings the network suits out in force. Meeting with Train’s producer, Davis, an ultimatum is given – get Train back under control within a week or heads will roll, and not just Train’s. Hedging the networks bets, one of the executives courts the weekend anchor, Charles Dancy, slightly younger, much prettier and considerably dimmer – just what the network is looking for. Dancy, reluctant to nudge Train out of the way, has been fielding offers from other networks.
Ultimatums notwithstanding, Train continues on his personal vendetta against liars and hypocrites. Davis has made little headway and begins to believe that Train’s demons have gotten the best of him. Newly and reluctantly sober, Train has burned too many bridges to count, including his marriage and most of his colleagues; his relationship with his daughter Cynthia is tenuous at best.
Unbeknownst to everyone at the network, Cynthia, career military, has leaked information of a cover-up to Rizzo, one of the network’s investigative reporters. In a tip of the hat to the Dan Rather scandal, network rules now demand that three identifiable sources confirm all reports; Rizzo has only two, as the third, Cynthia, cannot go public. What Cynthia and Rizzo don’t know as they continue to strategize on ways to reveal the cover-up, is that Train is hard at work trying to sabotage the public airing of the story in an effort to salvage Cynthia’s career. What Train doesn’t know is that Cynthia and Rizzo are an item.
After Train finally makes it clear to Davis that he values his career and would not like to lose his forum, Train and Davis find a way to wrest control of that decision from the network executives.
INT. NEWS STUDIO – CONTINUOUS
A beat and Train is rock solid, camera-ready.
Train: There’s been a good deal of speculation about my behavior lately. A lot of people seem to think that I’ve lost my way. That my reporting is suspect.
INT. NEWS STUDIO - CONTROL BOOTH
The engineer looks worried. As does the whole room.
Engineer: What the hell’s he doing? He’s going off script.
He turns to Davis who stays calm.
INT. NEWS STUDIO
Train: As a matter of fact I think I’ve done some of my finest work in the last few weeks. You see, I made a decision about some things in my life that I wanted to change, some personal, some professional. One of those was I was tired of playing a talking head that’s muzzled by bureaucracy and corporate politics. It’s a service to no one. And I won’t do it anymore. But this attitude has made some people at the network uncomfortable. They find my unwillingness to placate some of the more important guests and stories...less than agreeable. To that I can only say: I should certainly hope it is. Half of these people and ideas don’t deserve our patience - they deserve our immediate condemnation.
INT. NEWS OFFICES - HALLWAY – CONTINUOUS
Staffers watch monitors in the hall.
Train: (O.S.) The bland and the spineless or the loud and vicious have taken place of the forthright and the insightful.
Dancy watches closely, a slight grimace at that.
INT. NEWS STUDIO – CONTINUOUS
Train: But I suspect the American people want more. I think you’re tired of talk show hosts that always seem to love their guests’ movies. I think they want to hear a spade be called a spade. I know I do.
INT. NEWS STUDIO - CONTROL BOOTH – CONTINUOUS
Davis watches, rapt. Holloway walks up next to him.
Holloway: What’s he doing?
Davis just watches.
INT. NEWS STUDIO - CONTINUOUS
Train: So here’s where it is: I hereby resign my post as network anchor...unless you ask me to stay.
INT. NEWS OFFICES - CORPORATE OFFICES – CONTINUOUS
Hefner and Network Brass watch a TV. ON THE TV:
Train: (On TV) If the majority of you want me to quit I will. Effective immediately. If you think there’s method to my madness I’ll stay. Vote me off if you so wish it.
Network Brass: Who the hell does he think he is? This isn’t a democratic occupation!
He picks up the phone and starts dialing.
INT. NEWS STUDIO – CONTINUOUS
Train: You can vote on our website.
INT. NEWS STUDIO - CONTROL BOOTH – CONTINUOUS
Davis leans over the Engineer and types something into the computer. On the monitor a website appears onscreen.
INT. NEWS STUDIO – CONTINUOUS
Train: Come Monday your will will determine if you see me again. So until then, or forever, I’m William Train. I tell you the news. With absolute bias, but without guile. Good night.
INT. NEWS OFFICES - CORPORATE OFFICE – CONTINUOUS
Hefner paces as Network Brass is on the phone.
Network Brass: (on the phone) We’re going to look like complete fools if we announce his termination now! It’s going to look like network amateur hour!
His face sours, turns uncertain.
No Meaner Place: In a tribute to “Network” by Paddy Chayefsky and a poke in the eye to Fox News, Conrad has taken issues of journalistic integrity, or the lack thereof, and made them his own. With an intelligent premise and incisive, smart dialogue, Conrad has given us something to think about filtered through a complex, self-destructive, complicated “House”-like character who is not easy to love.
It is hoped that this excellent script did not die on the vine because it was an antidote to “fair and balanced.” Despite, or perhaps because of Google, the news, and how it’s presented, is still an important factor in our day-to-day lives.
Life Lessons for Writers: In another tip of the hat to Paddy Chayefsky: “We'll tell you anything you want to hear, we lie like hell.”
Neely: You have created really compelling characters in complex situations. What, besides Paddy Chayefsky and “Network,” influenced you to write this pilot?
Brett: It was kind of a field that’s been fascinating to me, especially in the last 10 years with the explosion of the “talking head” shows. Primarily, though, “Broadcast News” was a huge influence on me. I adore that movie, although I obviously took a different tone. And, to a certain extent, I was influenced by the sensibility of “The West Wing;” I just blew up the structure of that show. The world Sorkin created was, in a way, more interesting than what he was talking about. It inevitably came down to not caring so much about the politics at hand as you about did those people and how they bumped up against each other. That’s where I was trying to go.
Neely: Interesting, because I did sense a bit of Sorkin in there.
Brett: Yeah. I admire him greatly. I’m glad that comes out.
Neely: How much research did you do?
Brett: Shockingly little; not much more than watching those “talking head” shows and seeing how they ran. It’s become a field where it’s so incestuous that half the time the stories are about themselves or about what their colleagues have done, rather than the news itself; they’ve taken over. It’s pretty easy these days to get a glimpse into how their shows are running. All the behind-the-scenes squabbling is all over the internet. So today, everyone is aware of everything that’s going on all the time. It wasn’t really all that hard to imagine what would be happening behind the scenes.
Neely: And also, keep in mind that on those “talking head” shows, what with the proliferation of news over the internet, nobody is doing any research. Nobody is checking facts; they’re spreading rumors rather than news stories.
Brett: Absolutely. Taking the position of somebody like Train, who’s part of the old guard and having a hard time adjusting to the new state of affairs, it looks like a side show; it looks like a circus. Throw him into the mix and it’s pretty easy to imagine the culture clash.
Neely: I like that explanation. Are there any real life inspirations for this story or some of the characters?
Brett: Not really. I mean, I suppose that to a certain extent some of it came from how Dan Rather ended up exiting the network news business. It was so ignominious. It really looked like they were looking for a way to push him out. It’s something you couldn’t have imagined 10-15 years earlier. They would have fought to keep him then; but they now clearly saw this as an opportunity and with a swift hand, all of a sudden this giant in the world of broadcast journalism was pushed out the door. I kept imaging this. I think for a while he was on the 3rd place network, but I kept thinking what if he had been on the 1st place network and colossally huge – far too popular and powerful for them to handle it like that. What does that look like? How does that explanation work behind the scenes? That’s a fairly big inspiration, but beyond that… no personal models.
Neely: Train’s self-destructive approach to AA was refreshing. In some ways, it looked as if AA would have been a character in itself. Although none of my business (as if that’s ever stopped me) but… any personal experiences in play?
Brett: No. But I'll tell you something interesting that happened because of that. You’re not the first to ask me. For myself, no, it’s nothing I struggle with. I come from a family of teetotalers. So no, not personally at all.
But one time, a couple of years ago, I had left my then-agent and was taking some meetings at new agencies. I went to this meeting at Gersh with my manager. We sat and talked a few minutes – you know, opening chit chat. Before I met with them, I should explain that besides this script, they had also read a feature of mine that took place at a vineyard – so there was alcohol involved in that. And the only spec episode of television I’ve ever written was an episode of “Rescue Me,” where there are, obviously, some heavy alcoholic themes as well. So they had read these three particular scripts, and the senior agent started out with, “I really loved this world and this character and the throes of alcohol that he’s going through. I take it you obviously know something about this. I, myself, have been sober for 10 years.” And he reached his hand out to me, “And you?” (Neely laughs) I stammered, “No, actually, I’m not an alcoholic. It’s not part of my life.” In a heartbeat, his face just changed; his countenance became an aura of “how dare you write about this and not be an alcoholic.” I mean, on a dime, the tone of that meeting changed and the guy barely said a word after that. It was pretty funny. My manager and I leave and he just looked at me with “What the hell was that? Did you see that? He was offended you weren’t an alcoholic.” It was a pretty interesting meeting.
Neely: AA is a sacred cow.
Brett: I knew I was going against the grain there, but in the world of drama, I think anything’s fair game.
Neely: Obviously Train’s name was a play on train wreck. What were some of the other scrapes that Train was going to get into?
Brett: You know, at a certain point I block myself off from going too far down that road. There’s so much heavy lifting on the pilot alone that it’s just something that I don’t get to until later.
That being said, throughout the pilot episode, I don’t think Train ever felt like he was under a real threat. He knew he could win. He was playing things pretty close to his vest, but, in his own eyes, he never really faced an end point. That would certainly eventually have to happen. It would have to build, either through the last relationship he had, which was his daughter, or he’d have to push where he stands with his job in a greater way. I’m hesitant to go beyond the general arc of the show. A show evolves and grows on its own and I would never want set something in stone before hand.
Neely: I remember a development exec who would typically say, “This is great, but what happens in episode 58?”
Brett: Ah yes. That’s my favorite question in those meetings. “What does episode 17 look like?” But I’ll tell you one thing, and as strange as it seems, I was never that interested the investigative journalism part of the story. I didn’t want to see him reading the news that often, or even really pounding out stories. The far more interesting stuff to me was how these people in these big positions manage their lives. I think those stories set a completely different tone – more like “30 Rock” or “Murphy Brown.” In those shows, you saw very little of the actual work at hand, it was more about their lives. That was my approach to this.
Neely: So this really wasn’t about broadcast journalism; it was really going to be about this complex character.
Brett: Yeah. And the relationship between the two leads – Train and his handler, Davis. This was ultimately going to be a “love story” between those two guys – the talent and the handler.
Neely: That leads quite naturally into my next question which was: what holds Davis and Train together?
Brett: (laughs) It is an inherent love for what they do, but they’re both lost in the reality of what it’s supposed to be versus what it is. Of course, obviously, Train has these other demons going on in his life. Train’s not sober; he’s dry. So he’s teetering right on the edge and his job is the only thing that will keep him stable, more or less. For Davis, his handler, producing the news was always his dream. It just didn’t turn out to be the way it looked like it was going to be. Part of it is that he’s bound and determined to get it closer to what he wants it to be - use this “lion” (Train) to both get himself there as well as, ideally, get the punchy “ex-boxer” back into fighting shape. There’s gratification in that.
Neely: Was Donovan (the female lead character in the newsroom) going to turn into an opportunistic Diana Christenson character (Faye Dunaway in her Oscar-winning role in “Network”) who famously said:
“I can't tell you how many men have told me what a lousy lay I am. I apparently have a masculine temperament. I arouse quickly, consummate prematurely, and can't wait to get my clothes back on and get out of that bedroom. I seem to be inept at everything except my work. I'm goddamn good at my work and so I confine myself to that. All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating.”
Brett: Diana was a great character; she might even have been my favorite character in that movie. Yeah, absolutely. Train had to have a counterpart who was different from the guy that feeds off him (Davis). It had to be somebody who could put him in his place and talk to him in a real way and not stand for the bullshit he would bounce off other people. Yeah, it’s hinted at in the pilot that a relationship might follow. I planned on opening up a big history between them personally. Plus, as the lead female on the show, she’s got to be a strong character who can handle all these guys.
Neely: Was she going to be an opportunist?
Brett: Inevitably, I think she was going to turn that way. Being the one person Train thought he could trust, she also has to be the person who breaks that trust. So, yes, absolutely she was going to show a different side eventually from what Train wanted.
Neely: Was this written on spec or pitched?
Brett: Wrote it on spec. I think I woke one night when I got an idea for the opening scene and I ended up writing all the way through the end of the first act. Sometimes when you start writing you find different ways in. There was line I wrote toward the end of the first act. Train’s walking into his office and finds Davis is sitting there; Train couldn’t care less. Train says, “Davis, my little gummy worm, whatever brings you here on so blah blah a whatever." When I wrote that line, I realized I really knew this character; that this character could be so insouciant to someone warning him about a career-ending screw up. I knew then that I had him. It was clear as day to me who this guy was and what his manner and his speech was. That opened it up for me.
Neely: Who did it go out to?
Brett: Timing is so key in all these different things. Various people have seen it, but we never really presented it anywhere. I didn’t align myself with producers and go to a studio and then take it networks. The timing was off wherever it was. It’s just gone in sideways to various different places. I knew while I was writing it that it was verboten subject matter. For whatever reason, it’s one of the topics that just scares the hell out of networks and cable channels. I was told that by pretty much everybody. But everything is execution and they said the same thing about politics and the White House. “You can’t make a show about that.” Then Sorkin did “The West Wing” and then “of course you can” – you just have to do it well. It was something I faced from the beginning but I truly believe you can make a show, make a movie about anything, it’s just how it gets executed and played out.
Neely: I had no idea that this was a forbidden subject. Why do you think it is?
Brett: I have no solid answer for that but I’ve heard it countless times. At one point one of the drama development execs at CBS had read the script and loved it. But word came back that Les Moonves would never make a show about broadcast journalism. It was heartbreaking, but again, it’s something that has to break through. I liked “The West Wing” and it’s a great example of that, because of course you can.
Neely: Maybe it has something to do with the seriousness of the topic. The networks all take their hard news divisions very seriously (well, some do more than others) and may not like the scrutiny or criticism. Who knows? Certainly I was unaware of that edict.
Brett: I agree with what you say. Interestingly, Sorkin, himself, just set up a show at HBO in this exact world. Every now and again they do take a chance; something does happen. It also helps that Sorkin just won an Oscar.
Neely: Well the Sorkin name has always had some caché. In fairness, I think he already had a deal in place at HBO and they were just waiting for his next project.
Were there any particularly helpful notes during the process, other than Les won’t put a show like this on the air?
Brett: My manager, Bob Sobhani, is excellent with notes and I’ve come to completely trust and value his feedback. He was a great sounding board during the first draft stages. His notes were fairly cosmetic. The larger note, though, was to keep the emotional and personal lives of these guys on track and make it less about the investigative journalism beat.
Neely: Paddy Chayefsky is clearly an elephant in the room. What was his influence on you?
Brett: It was considerable. You’re right, it is the elephant in the room; it’s unavoidable. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen “Network” but he absolutely embraced the satire of what he was doing. I was trying to take a slightly more grounded approach to this and do more straightforward storytelling in this world. At a certain point I had to diverge from style and theme, but yes, absolutely, there’s a shared starting point with the future of the anchor and the decision-making process. It was always with me, always right there.
Neely: Any other significant literary influences on your work?
Brett: On all my work or this particular…
Neely: Let’s talk about this particular thing and then maybe will broach the wider question a bit later.
Brett: On this it was pretty much the ones you’d think of and the ones I mentioned before - “Broadcast News,” “Network,” some of the style of “The West Wing.” Those were pretty much it. There are always other things swimming around in any writer’s head. There’s a lot of Mamet there. He writes about different things than this, but he has certain absolute rhythms that I know have filtered into my brain; I end up writing some of that staccato dialogue style.
Neely: In looking over your credits, I found it very interesting that all of your credits have been on cable until most recently with “The Defenders” on CBS. More interestingly, however, is your writing credit on “Defying Gravity,” a series made for the BBC.
Brett: It wasn’t exclusively for the BBC. It was Fox TV Studios who had been using a new business model. This was one of the first that they tried. They financed this show internationally first; then they sold off territories to the BBC, to Pro Sieben in Germany, and all around the world. It was fully funded for 13 episodes right off the bat, so there was no pilot per se. It was an interesting endeavor because we pretty much had total creative freedom to do what we wanted on it because there was no network to give notes at the time.
Neely: So it got sold internationally, but wasn’t it’s primary initial launch on the BBC? I don’t remember seeing this on American television.
Brett: It did appear very briefly on American television. And again, as I said, this was the first show on which Fox TV Studios tried this model and they learned from it. They didn’t secure an American distributor (network) right away, therefore none of the American networks had an emotional attachment to it. It was just a purchase, not part of their development process.. ABC ended up with it. Between the time that they bought it and aired it, there were maybe three weeks, so it was barely advertised, if at all. They played 7 or 8 of the episodes and then pulled it. It was in the middle of the summer and since it wasn’t reality television, nobody watched.
Neely: I missed it entirely. How long did it last on the BBC?
Brett: 13 episodes and then they pulled it. I was on it with my buddy Jim Parriott, who I met on “The Sons of Anarchy.” He asked me to do this with him.
Neely: That’s very flattering.
Brett: Yeah, Jim is a great guy. I was very lucky to work with him. We did it in between seasons of “Sons of Anarchy.”
Neely: Since we just opened up the topic, tell me a bit more about the trajectory of your career which started as a staff writer on “Sons of Anarchy” and at some point you returned to that show.
Brett: I had been working in features for the longest time – it was the world I lived in. At a certain point, I’m not sure how many different features I had written, set up somewhere, or had optioned, but the glacial pace of film making makes you want to bash your head against the wall.
At one point, maybe in 2005, I helped produce a pilot for AMC (this was before AMC got really involved in original programming, before they were doing amazing stuff like “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men”). It was kind of on a lark, I did this with a friend who had set this up with National Lampoon. I fell in love with the pace of TV, and it was after that that I wrote my first TV pilot.
I’d always loved television, especially in the last ten years, since the beginning of “The Sopranos.” That show just kicked open the door of what you can do with storytelling – everything changed. And in those last ten years, I think the best television has, by far, been better than the best films. With the kinds of stories you get to tell on cable, it was incredible; I wanted to be part of that. That’s how it started.
That first job on “Sons of Anarchy,” was a lot of luck and a little happenstance. I had no idea that my agent at the time had submitted me for it. In fact, I wasn’t interested in staffing on somebody else’s’ show because I still had a couple of movies in the early stages of development. I had even told the agent that I wasn’t interested in staffing; I was going to try and create something of my own. But unbeknownst to me, he submitted me to “Sons of Anarchy. I got a phone call from the agent, “Hey, I think you’ll like this show. It’s a dark biker show. I know you didn’t want to “whatever” but the guy wants to meet you, so go meet him tomorrow.” It was the first meeting I’d ever had for a television job and it all happened within the span of 2 or 3 days. I took the meeting and the next day, I think, they offered me the job; I started the following Monday. It all happened in an instance. It wasn’t ‘til later that I realized just how incredible that was and what a rarity, because I’d never spent any time as a writer’s assistant or working on a show before.
Neely: So you already had a features career. For most people a features career does not necessarily entail getting one of their scripts on the screen, but it does entail getting paid for writing features. So in some ways, working on someone else’s show was a step down, something that many people would have been unwilling to take. Did that enter into your thinking?
Brett: I never thought of it as a step down, but it was clearly going to be a different way to work and play. Kurt (Sutter) wrote a great pilot for “Sons of Anarchy;” it was a new world, it was really interesting, and I dug it. I jumped into it and fell in love with the process. There’s something so much more immediately gratifying about television, if only because it happens faster than film, which can drag on eternally. It was just something different, not a lateral or backward move or anything like that. It ended up being a dream job because there was an incredibly talented group of people there – especially meeting Jim Parriott there who became something of a mentor to me. I’ve worked for him 3 times now. It was fortuitous.
Neely: Do the writing rooms or the approaches to episodes differ between network and cable?
Brett: Not especially. When you get down to it, it’s still about how you tell the story. It’s 6 or 7 or 8 people trying to do their best to stumble through creating story after story. Every one is different. It largely comes down to the showrunner and how they think is the best way to run the room. That’s where the variable comes from. You don’t really feel a difference from cable to network, just from showrunner to showrunner.
Neely: Do you have a preference between working on cable and working on network?
Brett: There certainly seems to be more creative freedom on cable, which I think everybody wants and would love to have. In cable you have the ability to do more serialized storytelling, more character-driven storytelling, and certainly darker subject matter. Those are all things that appeal to me.
Neely: I think we should break here and continue in Part II. I want to know more about you.
TO BE CONTINUED (after I return from vacation)