Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Jury duty

Let's talk about jury duty and why every aspiring screenwriter needs to just get it over with and do it once if he or she has had the unfortunate opportunity to serve. Many of you might be saying, "Of course! It makes perfect sense if you want to write a spec script for a show like Law and Order, or Franklin and Bash, or any courtroom drama be it TV or feature. But I don't write those." Well, I've been stuck on jury duty for a full three weeks, and while its often been a long, tedious, boring event, I feel like I've learned a great deal with regard to... get this... screenplay structure, writing, and the dos and don'ts of pitching.

While I'm not at liberty to give details about the case in question, I can describe some of the players. Our plaintiff attorney is a younger Alan Alda without the funny. Even better, he's Sam Waterston of Law and Order. He wants to win this case because it's the right thing to do in a world where people need to be held accountable for their mistakes. He wants us to pity his client and the horrible, despicable events that led to his client's unfortunate situation.

He looks the part. He caters to our most basic emotions. And while he stood before us and spent over an hour pouring his heart out for his client in his opening and closing statements (that's over an hour for each), all I could think to myself was, "I get it. Your client was wronged. You've hit me with the same visual information at least five times and you haven't moved forward. OMG, this guy would make me feel suicidal on the receiving end of an elevator pitch." For me, the courtroom was the elevator, and the elevator was stuck between floors.

What I was witnessing was the bona fide reason for learning to make your pitch short and effective. The plaintiff's attorney was neither, and even though it was clear that he himself believed in his cause, he was incapable of selling it to me in over an hour.

Two other attorneys represented two separate defendants. Again, think of a big Texas lawyer representing some corporate entity, and then a fast talking weasel representing some lower level government operation. These guys really fit some stereotype standards for casting attorneys. The soft spoken yet passionate victim's attorney versus the blustery big jowled defense counsel and his "I should have been an agent" co-counsel. You don't want to like these two, and their physical manners made it easy. Good casting.

But I digress. Because these two had a skill that the plaintiff attorney didn't. They got to the point. They summarized their story clearly, concisely and quickly, and they remained consistent in that talent throughout the trial. Our Waterston wannabe did not.

Our Waterston wannabe felt that it was necessary to revisit the details of what happened to his client with every witness (there were about 20). And he wasn't doing it for the benefit of the witnesses. No, he wanted to make sure that we the jury didn't forget those details. He wanted to make sure that we hadn't forgotten the foundation of the story, so he repeatedly went back to it. In screenwriting terms, he was repeating exposition because he was afraid his audience wasn't smart enough to follow along. A standard rule in screenwriting - don't assume that your audience won't get it unless you spell it all out for them. Doing that slows down the read. It makes the audience lose interest fast. And that was certainly the case in the courtroom.

The weasel, "I should have been an agent" guy was particularly efficient in selling his closing argument, and believe it or not, it was because he adhered to a screenwriting must - stay focused on your theme. He literally stepped up to the plate and stated it from the start. "Stay focused on the ball." His words. Then he proceeded to the definition of "the ball." It couldn't get any simpler than that, and for me, he sold his argument. He kept on point. He kept to his theme.

Now for the deliberations, or how I like to think of it - the writers' room. Technically speaking, I have never officially been part of a writers' room, but they're not hard to figure out. Writers and other pertinent creative decision makers sit in a room that is led by the show runner, the one in charge, and theories are discussed, plot holes are exposed, characters and their motivations are clarified, etc. etc. until a decision is made on the outcome of the show. It's pretty much the same as a jury room - 12 people with decidedly different backgrounds, experiences and beliefs thrown together to interpret material and determine if is right and true to a perceived end.

We had a good mix of intelligent jurors with diverse backgrounds to draw from. We even got along to some extent, and I'm told that it is a crucial element to any successful writers' room. But that doesn't mean that we agreed on the points of the case. In fact, we were far from it.

Our jury foreman, we'll just call her the Showrunner, did not want the job. I'll bet that many a TV showrunner can relate. But she was vocal and expressive and the type of person who naturally attracts attention. Therefore, she qualified. Her first order of business was to remember the jurors in the room by visual identification as opposed to just remembering people's names. I was Coke Lady because I had a bottle of the stuff with me every day. Then there was Oxygen (she had an oxygen tank), iPad Red, iPad Black, Bun Lady (she wore her hair in a bun), etc. etc. I was struck by the fact that screenwriters need to do this every time they introduce a character to their stories. It's not enough to give a character a name to make him or her memorable. There needs to be something for the reader, for the audience, to latch onto that makes the important characters stand out. Sometimes it's a visual trait. Often times its a unique quirk. More times than not, it's a visual cue. Heck, I did it when describing the attorneys.

The discussion in the writers room took two and a half days. We were evenly split over two separate verdicts that needed a nine vote majority on both counts. Opinion came into play. The correct definition of "reckless" was discussed repeatedly and how that definition applied to this case. We assessed the value of witnesses, or in the case of writing a story, characters. And guess what - some of those characters really served no purpose in the plot that we'll call a trial. If this were a screenplay, those characters could have easily been cut. One witness in particular had been on vacation at the time of the incident in question, and while he was an interesting moment of potentially goofball fun, he had nothing to add to the case. Absolutely nothing. An easy character to cut in spite of the potential for an interesting little sidebar.

We didn't agree on the first verdict. It was an evenly split decision. We debated evidence that conflicted with other evidence. We tried to convince each other why the verdict should be what it should be, and we brought our own opinions and experiences together in a creative way to sell our individual decisions, much like how writers in a room might try to sell their take on where a script should go. I was on the side that successfully pitched the deciding verdict to the other side. The "I should have been an agent" attorney was happy, and it reflects positively on the idea of keeping to a theme and staying focused on that ball.

The second verdict in question was also a split decision. We couldn't get past that one, although we tried. Sometimes writers and executives have creative differences. We were deadlocked. The judge, a likable authoritarian, allowed the deadlocked decision, and we were free. I was free. And inspired to write something. I'm still not keen on a courtroom drama - maybe a Franklin and Bash spec one day, but that's not the point.

The point is, for lack of coming up with any reasonable subtext, is that writers can learn ways to master their craft by experiencing jury duty. I highly recommend it because it costs far less than any professional seminar that promises the same results. In fact, you might even get paid a little. So, if you're a writer and you get stuck in jury duty, think of it as a gift and maybe it will help you through it - even if you don't write courtroom dramas.