What: Anderson (f/k/a Andi) Barrett finds herself back home in small town Hudson, New York about to start a job as legal counsel to the Mayor’s office. This is the place she where she was “…getting as far away from the boorish, unrefined, backward ass folk of Hudson as possible.”
Who: Anderson Barrett slinks back into her hometown after flaming out in Los Angeles where she was on the fast track to partnership in a prestigious law firm. Very tight-lipped about her disaster in the big time, her former high school classmate Keira Smith, now her court-ordered rehab monitor, cajoles her into telling her story.
Keira: If you tell me I’ll tell you about my abortion in high school.
Anderson: Fine. But no psycho-analyzing. I went to Vegas and gambled away twenty grand that belonged to a church I was doing pro-bono for. In my defense I was so drunk I don’t remember anything except wearing a dress I knew my mother would disapprove of because she doesn’t think women over twenty-five should wear dresses above their knees. Anyway, I got fired for breaking the law and avoided jail by going to rehab because I’m an alcoholic with a gambling addiction. But the church choir is still getting their organ and jewel-toned robes because I volunteered to have my wages garnished until eternity. (beat) You had an abortion?
Keira: Oh, God no! The only person who liked me in high school was Ms. Turk who coached field hockey.
Pulled into an emergency meeting on her first day at work, Anderson is brought in to help solve a public relations disaster that has befallen the Mayor.
Dennis: Good news, bad news. Bad news first. Stacey our town reporter will be running the following story in tomorrow’s paper: “Ms. Tricia Pane was arrested Tuesday night in Hudson for possession of marijuana. Blah blah blah, during a search of her vehicle, checks were found made out to cash from the mayor’s personal account.”…Tricia Pane is a hooker slash dominatrix, which leads me to believe Pane is not her real last name, although that would be pretty cool. The checks are from before, during and after the cancer that killed the mayor’s wife.
Erika: Damn, the cancer had our favorables up to the highest any mayor this town has seen.
Dennis: Bye, bye old lady sympathy votes.
Erika: What’s the good news?
Dennis: Carolyn brought bagels.
Anderson advises the mayor to resign until she is informed that her job is through the mayor’s office and not the village, ergo the mayor is out, she’s out. And add insult to injury, Anderson, ill informed and ill prepared, had argued the wrong side of a case in front of a judge that morning and referred to the party who filed the initial case as an idiot, not realizing that such “party” was the mayor. One day in town and Anderson’s high school rival Duncan, Hudson’s Communications Director, has wagered fifty dollars that she’ll be gone by day’s end.
Au contraire, Anderson, with some able assistance from her new assistant (Duncan’s former assistant), uncovers the truth about the origins of the mayor’s checks (the origin of which goes under the category of no good deed goes unpunished) and finds a way that will allow him to clear his name, target the real culprit (his ne’er do well brother-in-law whom he had always protected at the behest of his beloved and now deceased wife), and help said brother-in-law back down the road to recovery; as well as finding a way to save the case she had tanked earlier in the day. Reconnecting with family members and recognizing the renewing aspects of going home again put Anderson back on the slow road to recovery.
No Meaner Place: Sarah McLaughlin, a half hour comedy writer who has worked on “What I Like About You” and “The 70’s Show,” has written a comedic character piece about being dragged kicking and screaming to a place she swore she would never return and gradually discovering its virtues. This is not a particularly original theme, but the execution is very good and she finds ways of making the characters show more depth than would have been expected. So much of this pilot, and presumably the future episodes, delve into the divergence of what we were versus what we now are – and all the insecurities associated therein. McLaughlin has made the everlasting slings and arrows of high school into understandable angst and hilarity.
Sony was interested in the piece, but only if it could be turned into a half hour comedy with a star attached.
Life Lessons for Writers: Write what you love, not what “they want” because “they” usually don’t know what they want.
Neely: Sarah, you are a half hour writer at the beginning of your career and practically right out of the gate you come up with a terrific one hour comedy. Where did this come from?
Sarah: I went home to my small town in New York for Thanksgiving three weeks after the Writers’ Strike had begun. I was hanging out with my best friend from high school who had never left and was now friends with all the “cool” kids from high school who had also never left. She thought they were all really great and I thought they were all losers who had never moved out or on. And the thought occurred to me – what would happen if the strike continued and I was forced to move back in with my parents. I suddenly realized that this is what Hell would look like. Most of the humiliations that happen to Anderson in the script happened to me in one way or another and everyone still remembers them.
Neely: Who were your influences in writing and who helped you get your start?
Sarah: Getting started in the business, I first worked as Caroline Rhea’s personal assistant. Then I got a job as a PA on a Wind Dancer show called “Soul Man” with Dan Ackroyd, and when that went down (fairly quickly) I got a writers’ assistant job on another Wind Dancer show entitled “Costello,” which also faded pretty quickly. I then got on “The Norm Show” but wasn’t really happy there and left to work as a writers’ assistant on “Jesse,” after which I landed on “The 70’s Show.” I came in contact with some great writers on those shows but I was really nurtured and taught by Jackie and Jeff Filgo and Mark Brazil on “The 70’s Show.” They were the Showrunners who helped me get an agent and really get started. They got me my first staff writing job on “The 80’s Show.” After that went down I got a position on “What I Like About You” but I was really unhappy there. When I let Jackie, Jeff and Mark know that things weren’t working out, it happened there was an opening and they were able to fit me onto the writing staff of “The 70s Show.”
Neely: What was your favorite experience on a show you worked on?
Sarah: In the 2000-2001 season of “The 70s Show” there was talk of a writers’ strike and Fox ordered 30 episodes so all the writers’ assistants got an episode assignment. Because all the writers, and especially the Showrunners, were busy with their episodes I got to work with Bonnie and Terry Turner on my script. Here were these two legends who had done “Wayne’s World,” “Coneheads,” and “The Brady Bunch Movie;” as well as “Third Rock from the Sun” and they were laughing at my jokes! It was like a drug that I wanted more and more of. I got to work on a Carsey Werner show with “The 70s Show” group – they were all like a family. They knew how to delegate and trust people to do their jobs. I learned leadership from their example.
Neely: Was “Hudson” your first pilot?
Sarah: The first pilot I sold was over at MTV. Paris Hilton’s ex fiancée had come up with an idea for an animated show where Paris would be a superhero. They got Stan Lee’s company POW Entertainment to join the project and then went out looking for writers. I pitched to them while Paris was in jail and they liked my idea so much that I had to re-pitch to Paris when she was released. The idea was that Paris was a superhero and her superpower was dumb luck. Which is very much like her life - when a sex tape is released that would ruin some people she just got more popular. And the show was her life in Hollywood, shopping, partying with celebs and solving crimes with dumb luck. Throughout the project I would get notes from Paris and learned about Celebrity Branding and the Paris Hilton “Brand,” which I didn’t know anything about, but was quickly brought up to speed about what was and wasn’t in line with her “Brand.”
Neely: Can you tell us how she defined her “Brand?”
Sarah: Paris defined her brand as on par with Oprah’s and Donald Trump. Sophisticated, much sought after, much admired. MTV saw Paris’s brand as silly, blonde and someone who likes to party and shop. My job was to mitigate the discrepancy of those 2 polar opposites in the script.
Neely: Returning to the topic at hand, as “Hudson” was shopped, what kind of reaction did you get and what were some of the meetings like?
Sarah: My agents at the time, Endeavor, sent it out to various places and the reaction was really good. They let me know that you really liked it. Then, for whatever reason, Endeavor lost interest and it just sort of died. I’ve changed agents and am now with APA.
Neely: Well, I’m going to tell you something that I hammer to my students. It’s your project so take over and sell it. It’s a wonderful script and a wonderful idea, so get APA to set up meetings and go pitch it yourself. Nobody can sell your material better than you can.
Sarah: I hadn’t thought of it that way. I’ve never pitched it myself.
Neely: No one knows these characters better than you do. It’s sooo post high school (and believe me most of us never get over it) so you must have lived this. With whom do you identify the most and why?
Sarah: Well, like I said, this was my vision of what Hell would look like if I had to go back. Of course I know all those characters and I lived those humiliations. Anderson is me and Keira is my best friend Andrea. Dennis is my Dad who always says things like “Dignity is like a top hat, wearing it is fine, albeit uncomfortable, but don’t try standing on it.”
Neely: What were you like in high school? Have you gone to any high school reunions since you became a professional (i.e., getting paid for your work as opposed to keeping a diary or, god forbid, writing a blog) writer? If yes, what was that experience like?
Sarah: I had bad skin and was chubby and did not know how to dress at all, but I was well liked with lots of energy even though everyone made fun of me. I went to Catholic elementary school and still have lots of Catholic guilt to deal with, but I still go to church. I just felt suffocated by the small town. I’ve been to one reunion and I was the super star for having moved to Los Angeles and this was before I had a paying writer job! I was voted class hottie, but that’s probably just because I’m the only one who left who didn’t just get fat.
Neely: Interestingly I understand that you were asked by Sony to rewrite “Hudson” as a half hour. How did that occur?
Sarah: Endeavor sent it to Sony. I had a blind script deal there and they thought maybe this would take care of it. They put me together with Jamie Tarses who has an overall with Sony, and it was Jamie who thought it would make a great half hour.
Neely: What was your process in rethinking and repurposing the material? Were you given specific notes about what they wanted the characters to be and what direction they wanted the show to go?
Sarah: My original idea for the show was “Gilmore Girl meets West Wing” but Sony didn’t want the show to be set in a political world like the mayor’s office. They also wanted the parents to be more present. In the hour long version, the parents are away when she arrives home and only show up in the end. Anderson had no idea they had gone to Alaska. This was to highlight that Anderson didn’t talk to them much. That was a true story about me. I flew to NY once to surprise my parents and they were on a trip out of the country for a month. But I talk to my parents; I don’t want to get any calls from them after they read this! When I finished the script, Sony was trying to get talent attached and approached Lauren Graham who passed. Then they sort of got overwhelmed with taking other pitches out during pitching season this year and decided to send it out in January.
Neely: When you wrote “Hudson” as a one hour, did you have anyone in particular in mind for the main character? What about for the half hour?
Sarah: I never write with anyone’s voice in mind because I’m afraid that it would interfere with the originality of the character.
Neely: Are you working on anything else? What about staffing?
Sarah: I’m not staffed on anything at the moment but would love to be. I’ve got a pitch that’s going to the Disney Channel and I’m developing a work place comedy.
Neely: I really look forward to following your career; you have a terrific voice.
Up Next: “Orpheus” by Nicholas Meyer
In the meantime, check out my posting at baseline studio system: http://www.blssresearch.com/research-wrap?detail/C6/branding_irons_in_the_fire