When two very different industries work together for the first time, unexpected creative differences can arise. AdWeek looks at some of the compromises that were reached in the making of Defiance:
The development cycle had its speed bumps. In the end, some of the
negotiations over the complexity in the game versus the effects in the
show were handled as a hostage exchange: You give us jetpacks, we'll
give you horses and nobody gets hurt. "They really didn’t want to do
horses in our world," sighs Mark Stern, president of programming for
Syfy—the critters present too big a target for this kind of game. "So
the agreement was, 'OK, as long as you agree to no flying, we’ll agree
to no horses.’"
The stakeholders still fantasize about their perfect version. "We
wanted flying vehicles, and Mark and his crew were like, 'Screw flying,
it'll blow up our CG budget,’" grumbles Beliaeff. "So we ended up
creating this whole mythology where the Ark ships blew up and that
created this low-flying asteroid field that made flying in the world
I've been tagged by prolific writer pal Brian Hodge to participate in an online viral roundtable called The Next Big Thing.
Started by horror writer Tim Lebbon, The Next Big Thing is a quick Q&A session that lets creative folks sound off about current or upcoming projects. I'm also tagging a good friend, the multi-talented writer Kira Snyder, to sound off on cool things she's doing. And if more friends decide to chime in, I'll link to them from here as well.
So big thanks to Mr. Hodge for letting me take this opportunity to tell you a little more about my work on an upcoming TV show called Defiance.
What is the working title of your next project?
A one-hour TV drama called Defiance, which premieres in April 2013 on the Syfy Channel. And I'm going to feel like an idiot if I don't point out that this is not my project. I was just fortunate enough to have been hired as a member of the writing staff.
Where did the idea come from for the project?
For years, Hollywood and the videogame industry have been looking
for ways to better interconnect story properties. Recently, the profits of some
videogames have outgrossed the take of blockbuster films, but it's not just about
the money. There are challenging and innovative narrative
possibilites to be explored here. Audiences are looking for
something new, and so are storytellers. This convergence might be the place to find new forms
Defiance is a collaboration between game publisher
Trion Worlds and the Syfy Channel. With online MMOs like Rift, Trion
was already rocking the game side of things when they came up with the
basic scenario for Defiance and pitched it around Hollywood. Syfy knew a
fantastic opportunity when they saw one and, as this Forbes article points out, they're betting $100 million that we can pull this thing off. But although everybody instantly
understood the world of the videogame, the big question was: how do you make
this into a weekly TV drama?
Lots of writers came in to pitch their take on the
characters who would live in this world and the kinds of stories you could tell. But it was Farscapecreator Rockne O'Bannon's original pilot
that finally got the big ball rolling. I'd worked with Rockne on
the ABC series V and he liked me well enough to bring me along for the ride.
For that, I'll be forever grateful. And I think I'll be forever washing his car or something like that. I really need to take another look at the fine print on my contract.
What genre does your project fall under?
This is balls-to-the-wall science-fiction with a bizarre canvas and
a wide-ranging mix of human and alien characters. Our storylines also
coincide and cross-over with the MMO videogame of the same name. It's still TBA, but I believe the Defiance MMO goes live six to eight weeks before the pilot movie airs next April. You
don't have to play the videogame at all to enjoy the show, but if you
do, you'll see characters and events crossing over from the show to
the game and back again. Setting up and executing such cross-platform events is trickier than you might expect. Over the course of the project, we all learned a lot about the videogame industry's workflow process. And they
learned how TV shows are created. Now both sides think the other is completely crazy for working that way. And both sides are right.
What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie rendition?
But before any actors had been hired, each of the writers had their own
idea of the perfect cast. When you're sitting in a room spitballing
stories for months, you've got to have something to hang onto. Often we'd point to
an actor as more of a character-shading thing than an actual casting
suggestion. For example, when talking about our lead character, Josh
Nolan, more than once someone would reference Gary Cooper. There's a
solid, everyman core that Cooper radiated in almost all his roles. We wanted that for Nolan and Bowler nailed that as soon as he walked into the room.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your project?
In the aftermath of a war that drastically changed (and almost
destroyed) planet Earth, humans and aliens struggle to rebuild
Will your project be self-published or represented by an agency?
All the usual Hollywood agencies are repped here via cast and
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the project?
It's my understanding that Rockne pitched and cranked out his original pilot in just a few
months. But it underwent many more revisions as the project gained
steam. Even after hiring a full writing staff, the network and game
publisher encouraged us to revamp much of the original concept. The world and characters of Defiance went through many iterations before we landed on the show we all wanted to make.
aboard the writing staff for 54 full weeks, which is pretty much unheard of for a
show with just a 13-episode order (most 22-episode network shows wrap in far
less time). Due to the extensive conceptual revamps and detailed coordination with
the videogame side of things, we generated a vast amount of story
material, far more than we could use. Some if it might carry over in some form to future seasons,
but most of it will probably never see the light of day. It all served
its purpose to propel us onto the stories we landed on. Onward, as they
What other projects would you compare this story to in your genre?
The above-mentioned Forbes articles says Defiance has elements of Deadwood meeting District 9. That's pretty accurate, but for my money I'd add the 1990s space opera Babylon 5 into that bowl before mixing.
Who or what inspired you to write this project?
My work at Defiance (contributor to many scripts, mad prophet blabbing ad nauseum in the first five show bibles, and a solo writing credit
on the eighth episode) was inspired by everybody I worked with.
I know it sounds like I'm being a suck-up but I'm just giving credit where credit's due. The writers room was amazingly open and collaborative. Our showrunner Kevin Murphy set the tone by declaring everybody had to check their titles
and seniority at the door each morning. That made the writers room a
safe place for anyone to speak up. Ideas and characters could grow
organically without any politics or other distractions. I can't stress how valuable
We all watch a lot of TV and no small amount of time was spent admiring and analyzing what other shows are able to do, from Breaking Bad to Homeland to The Wire to Sons of Anarchy and even Louie. Each of those shows is a great example of how cable television has the freedom to break new narrative ground. We let them inspire us as we worked to push the serialized story of Defiance into unexpected territory.
Once we shot the pilot, all of our individual and sometimes very separate visions of the show coalesced into something that inspired us to write more. From the incredible sets and detailed costumes to the actors nailing down
characters who had existed only in our heads, the show was suddenly real and alive and therefore much more fun to flesh out. Our choices got bolder and more confident. Once other parts of the
project began to clock in -- Gary Hutzel's mind-blowing visual effects, Bear
McCreary's thrilling and emotional score, and the skilled editing of our
post-production team -- Defiance became a very generous muse indeed.
For months after my gig ended, I walked around with
this world and these characters churning in my subconsious. I had trouble writing anything new because as soon as I'd start typing -- boom! -- I was back in Defiance. Only recently have
I begun to emerge from the show's influence (which is great because I owe my very patient
agents a new pilot very soon -- as in yesterday).
What else about the project might pique the viewer's interest?
Defiance is a grand and cinematic sci-fi tale the likes of which we
haven't seen on TV in many years. It's a bold and multi-layered story,
at once familiar and alien, filled with an array of characters seeking
to survive on a strange planet that used to be Earth. For all of its
genre trappings, however, it's ultimately about survivors who have found
themselves far from the world they once knew and how they are trying to
build a new home. That makes it an immigrant story, and therefore a very American
I was told recently of a TV writer wanna-be who has dismissed the various writers' programs in Hollywood. He's so convinced of his own singular talent that he doesn't need to bother with such things. In no small amount of time, he believes that his genius will be recognized all on its own.
Look, I'm all for self-confidence. You need it if you're gonna stare down a blank sheet of paper or screen every day for a living. But you also need at least half a brain when it comes to making opportunities for yourself. By my unofficial guestimation, the various studio-sponsored programs for new and emerging writers will staff anywhere from 30 to 50 first-time staff writers each year. Anyone passing up a chance to be included in those ranks is clueless.
While you're waiting for the spotlight to find you, pal, every other writer in LA just got to take a step forward because you left the line. You just made it that much easier for everybody else to have a shot, and that much harder on yourself.
But don't listen to me. I don't know anything. Except that I'm a working TV writer thanks to the Warner Bros. Writers' Workshop, which I cannot recommend highly enough. But be warned: you have to bring your A-game not just to your spec, but to your personal essay and (if you advance) to the personal interview as well.
The submission window is fast approaching for the WB workshop. You have from May 1 until June 1 to apply, and you've got a wide range of approved shows to spec.
The submission process should not be approached lightly. I cannot stress that enough. Here are some sobering statistics to prove the point. When I applied to the WB Workshop in 2009, there were over 1,300 spec script submissions. From that pile, my script was one of 10 that made the final cut. In 2011, the number of submissions rose to 1,800 -- again, only 10 were selected. Expect even more this year.
Yes, those odds are staggering. But guess what? The odds are always staggering. If you're a wanna-be TV writer with half a brain, you already know there are thousands of people just like you in Hollywood right now. They are your coffee baristas and waitresses and bartenders and cubicle monkeys writing and scribbling whenever they can, cranking out specs and making themselves ready and available for any break at all.
Of course, these programs aren't the only way into the industry. Some people land the coveted position of writers' assistant or PA on a show. This is hard and thankless work, and sadly it cuts into that valuable writing time, but it can often serve to open doors for new writers. Other wanna-be's are talented and lucky enough to write an original spec that gets someone's attention and maybe, just maybe, is actually bought by a production company or studio.
My point: you need to be doing all of these things. You never know which door is gonna open, so the last thing you wanna do is block a potential path with arrogance or stupidity.
Below are links to some of the other programs for new writers. All are worthy of your time. These aren't the only ways to break into TV writing. But wanna-be TV writers simply cannot afford to pass them up.