So You Want to Be a Scriptwriter?

by Michelle Erica Green

Other than getting an invitation to guest star on Star Trek, the fondest dream of many Trekkers is to sell a script to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Star Trek: Voyager and see it produced. Since executive producer Michael Piller initiated the television industry's only open submission policy for scripts from amateurs in 1989 for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Paramount has received tens of thousands of screenplays by amateur writers.

"We got over 5,000 spec scripts for the final season of Next Generation," reveals Lolita Fatjo, pre-production coordinator for Deep Space Nine and Voyager.

Fatjo--formerly the script coordinator for The Next Generation and for the two most recent Trek movies--supervises the processing, printing and distribution of all Star Trek scripts.

It's Fatjo's job to coordinate the evaluation of freelance scripts, which have to be logged, sent to union script readers who summarize and evaluate them, then passed on to the show's producers if they find the material promising. So if you're planning to try to write for Deep Space Nine or Voyager, hers is a name which will become familiar to you. "We have a hotline for writers: 213-956-8301," Fatjo says.

She stresses, "You can't just call Paramount with an idea. You have to be invited in to pitch a story, either through a spec script or because you're an established professional writer whose agent gets you in." She has some advice for would-be writers: "Our readers look for a good story first and foremost. They give a recommendation about whether or not the material is suitable, and then the writing staff reads the coverage and will make a decision based on that. Sometimes they don't want a particular story, but they're impressed enough with a writer to invite that person in to pitch new story ideas."

There are a few "don'ts" for scripts, according to Fatjo: "Don't try bringing back characters from the other series. If and when they decide to do that, the producers will make the decision." She adds that two-part teleplays are always returned unread. The official guidelines put out by Paramount emphasize the need for fresh, original material emphasizing the established characters on the show -- guest characters should never be the focus of the story, nor should scientific or technical detail.

Paramount recommends that writers use a standard television script format--not the format common for stage plays--and that teleplays be 55 to 65 pages in length. Each script must consist of a short teaser and five acts, 10 to 11 pages each. Only typed hard copies of scripts will be accepted, bound on the left margin, accompanied by a return postpaid envelope. The evaluation process can take from two to eight months.

Fatjo doesn't like to name her favorite writers or episodes, but she did mention a fondness for new Voyager executive producer Brannon Braga. "His episodes are the weird ones," she laughs. "Any time you see Braga's name on an episode, you say uh-oh, here we go, a little dark and eerie." She denies that the writers set out to address specific political issues in 20th century America, but admits that some scripts probably do so anyway. "Sometimes it does seem like we're paralleling things, but it is not a conscious thing. But writers write about certain important themes, and some of those are going to seem similar."

The writers for Star Trek are at quite a distance from what happens to their scripts on the set; they are housed in the building that Gene Roddenberry's office used to be in, while the six sound stages where filming takes place are across the lot. "It still has a lot of the old Hollywood feeling," Fatjo says. "But the writers don't even interact on the set--the only people who deal directly with both the writing staff and the actors are Ira Behr on Deep Space Nine and Jeri Taylor on Voyager."

If it sounds as though the writers have little individual power, Fatjo reveals that the actors have even less. "In the structure of the show, actors don't usually get lines changed; it's up to the producer." Fatjo says she really can't compare the casts or audiences for TNG, DS9, and Voyager. "They may have been trying to get a more female audience by having a female captain on Voyager, but I don't think they sat around talking about that," she says. "Rick and Jeri and Michael wanted a woman, but studio wanted them to read men too--just to keep their options open."

The show's producers, she stresses, are not idealists so much as professionals; they never lose sight of the need for marketability. While she thinks that executive producer Rick Berman has "tried to hold onto Gene Roddenberry's beliefs," she adds that "some of the newer, younger writers for the show are of a different generation...the ones who were fans of the show before they started working for it probably feel more idealistic about it."

Fatjo has been involved in teaching writer's workshops for the show, but confesses that she can't always answer writers' questions because she didn't watch the original series herself. Although some of the staff now call her a "Trek geek," she also admits that the first time someone asked her at a convention about a possible connection between Voyager and V'Ger, the ship from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, she didn't know what "V'Ger" was.

"Fandom intrigues me. I'm not a Trekkie, but I really admire the show," says Fatjo. "I just got lucky to happen to be here. I like to do cons and writer's workshops." She does like to remind herself that "there are a lot of people watching who aren't Star Trek fans per se--which is kind of nice--lots of people who would never go to conventions or write letters to Paramount."

Although the vast fan network fascinates her, Fatjo does have a few gripes with Trekkers. "Our legal department takes script leaks very seriously," she says. She believes that the illegal distribution of movie scripts on the Internet caused a change in attitudes; "Until Generations, there were blind eyes turned everywhere. Now there are Paramount employees looking out for [theft]. I mean, people in dealer's rooms at cons make fortunes off stuff the writers never make royalties off of--and only Majel Barrett Roddenberry has the right to sell the scripts."

She also gets "a little irritated" at some of the nitpicking that fans do. "The complaining really gets old," she says plaintively. "Most people don't have the slightest idea how much very hard work goes into making the show happen. They try to do two different series at 26 episodes a year, and it's a lot of effort!"

Despite her claims about how hard the work is, Fatjo's predecessor at her job says that she exaggerates how much work really gets done in the Hart Building. Confides Eric Stillwell, formerly TNG script supervisor and now Michael Piller's assistant as the latter scripts the new Trek movie, "All those tasks take up about 5 hours of time per week. The rest of the time they just sit around and talk about sex. You can quote me on that one!"

"I'm sure that was true when Eric was here," Fatjo snorts when told of her friend Stillwell's comment. "But we're doing two shows we have to put in a little more time!"

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