When my Iraq pilot ends, I want the audience to be different.
They’ll be different because they shifted. Because the characters shift. The audience identifies with the characters, forms a bond with them that pulls them up and down through the piece, changes them as the character changes.
Stories help us feel what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes. They give us the gift of empathy, the gift of identifying from a different direction. A woman walks away identifying as a man.
You help your characters shift by making the powers that oppose them overwhelming. The more acute the opposition, the more we’ll feel the urgency of the situation, and the more vital and primal the bond we’ll form. That person struggles. I struggle. I understand how that person feels. A man walks away identifying as a woman.
In my pilot, male soldiers discover they have to work with women during active combat, and they feel dragged down, challenged, threatened, unsafe. The female soldiers feel unprepared, untrained, unwelcome, unsupported.
Most of them experience a shift. If the piece works, the audience identifies with them at the start and shifts along with them.
By the end, the characters circle near the feeling –
We are all women. And we are all men.
If the story works, my audience will feel that too.
Last year I wrote a pilot about modern day pirates that was set in Haiti. I chose Haiti because it’s one of the poorest countries on Earth — both left behind and close to home. I felt it was real life Sci Fi. The sense of place was an important part of the piece. Now Haiti has been destroyed a thousand times more — before it was a silent catastrophe in our midst, now it will be a devastatingly loud one. While I was writing, I felt frustrated because all I wanted to do was talk about it. And no one wanted to hear it.
Now I’m writing a pilot about Iraq, and everything’s that wrong over there feels overwhelming to me. Horrifying suicide rates among active duty soldiers and veterans. Sickeningly high sexual assault rates for female soldiers, by fellow soldiers — as high as 30%. Unnecessary civilian deaths. Unnecessary soldier deaths. Outrageously corrupt war profiteering. No one over there seems to know what we’re doing over there. This is all going on — and no one cares. No one wants to hear about it, no one wants to listen. No one gives a fuck. We are members of a democratic society who have orchestrated this, and by not rising up and expressing our outrage and ending this, we are responsible. A tragedy occurs in our midst, and we are responsible.
No one cares because the Iraq story is not acute. Like the Haiti story, it was just happening. It was horrific and terrible and outrageous, but there was no moment that was more horrific and terrible and outrageous than the next. There was no acute focus to the story, no lens to help us understand how to feel about it.
With Haiti, those people had always been crushingly poor and betrayed by corrupt leaders, right? How is one day different from the next? Many people have difficulty feeling empathy for people they don’t relate to — or they don’t find a way to relate to people whose plights aren’t right in front of them. Suddenly there’s a horrible earthquake — something that any of us might experience any day — it taps into our fears about our own safety — we could lose our homes just like they did, we could be wandering the streets just like them — then as we wallow in the disaster porn because it stirs up all those feelings so many of us yearn to feel every day but don’t have access to — empathy, understanding, fear, grief — feelings that get buried by everyday life’s efficiency and competency and need to look emotionally stable — disaster porn allows us to access all those feelings — and once accessed, we get it. Wait a minute, they were fucked before this horrible earthquake. They’ve been fucked for a very long time. I just wasn’t thinking about it. It took this acute story, the flurry of excitement, the urgency and concentration of focus centered on the need to find people, find shelter, find medical aid, find water, the sheer drama of it all — that’s what it took for us to care.
If there were a terrible earthquake in Iraq, would people care about the war?
The other big story this week has been the Leno/Conan/NBC war, with virtually everyone I know declaring for “Team Conan.” Both Team Leno and Team Conan are teams that do not hire any women writers. How is it possible that with all this media coverage, no one discusses that fact? If Conan O’Brien released a carefully worded statement declaring his intention to never hire women writers, there would be a public outcry. No one would join “Team Conan” then. However, by not declaring his intention but instead just doing it, no one calls him out on it, no one gives a fuck. It’s the Haiti, Iraq problem: the story is outrageous but not acute. People shrug it off as just the way it is. There’s no urgency, no face on the story — no highly qualified woman who should have gotten a job on the show and was told “we don’t hire women” walking out of the studio with a brave face. No disaster porn to allow people to access their empathy.
The lesson here is this: if you have an important story you want to spread, find a way to make it acute. Give it a face and a focus and make it urgent. Shape it into disaster porn.
Had a dream where my back was turned and someone stole my couch, coffee table and computer.
Wrote in my journal: “I couldn’t believe they were able to take such big stuff so quickly.”
This line resonated with me. I’ve been working on a pilot about Iraq that’s affecting me deeply. I felt this line spoke to my experience writing this pilot and what I imagine to be soldiers’ experiences over there.
I decided to develop a scene where my female combat soldiers are outside the wire for the first time with their Marine comrades. The Marines leave them to guard the Humvee while they rip apart a house to find an insurgent. Iraqis create a diversion on the street, distracting the females just long enough for the Iraqis to steal something big — haven’t figured out what yet. A weapon, something significant. Maybe even the translator they were guarding.
When the Marines return to find they’ve lost something their first day on the job, the females are humiliated (though they shouldn’t be considering they were never trained for missions outside the wire). The main character says some version of that line from my journal later to her girls — “I couldn’t believe they were able to take such big stuff so quickly.” In the end, this line might be too on the nose, and it’s certainly awkward as written in my journal, but for now it stands as an emotional placeholder — a way to go deep.
The scene rings early on in the script as a warning bell for what they’re going to lose on the inside.