It was long, damaging and ultimately unsuccessful, but it did give us Dr. Horrible. It was the end of March, 2008, and I was bleary and exhausted. In the previous week, I’d gotten only eight hours of sleep. I hadn’t shaved in five days. Coffee was a prized commodity, and the thought of getting real slumber constantly replayed itself in my mind as an unattainable goal. My writing partner, Matt Chernov, was in the same condition. We spoke to each other in half-sentences and mumbled phrases while we sat with our laptops facing each other. Our fingers moved rapidly on the keyboards, pounding out scene after scene.
Less than a month earlier, we’d landed our latest writing assignment. The project was called Megastorm, and it couldn’t have come during a more direly necessary time. The 2007-2008 Writer’s Guild of America strike had just ended after a three month shutdown. Though Matt and I weren’t yet in the union, we had still felt the effects of it. Matt and I had no intention of being scabs, so we hadn’t worked in three and a half months. I had begun temping at an insurance company to keep the bills paid. When the studio called and said they had a project for us, it was one of the most relieving moments of my life. You see, I’m not just a writer by trade — storytelling is in my genetic structure. I’m compelled to do it at all times. Taking that away from me was like removing a patient from life support. I felt listless, zombified.
So when I got that call and was asked “do you wanna write a script called Megastorm,’” I said yes without a moment’s pause. There was no logline, no idea beyond the title. The only caveat was that it was to be a four-hour miniseries for NBC. The studio was strict about the page count. They wanted no less than 240 pages. The standard rule (though it can sometimes be flexible) is that one scripted page equals one minute of screen time. However, since this was television, a miniseries that runs four hours is ultimately a little over three once commercials are added in. That didn’t matter — they wanted the full shebang, in order to give themselves the option of keeping and cutting scenes. Yes, you read that right. They wanted us to write scenes that would ultimately NEVER BE SHOT. This wasn’t rational, but it’s also not the sort of thing you question when a paycheck is on the line.
They urged us to think big, said that budget wouldn’t be an issue. So we concocted a story in which a government atmosphere station tests radical weather-control technology. A brilliant scientist is at the helm only to be horrified when the tests have catastrophic consequences — a hole is ripped in the ionosphere and allows a burst of unchecked solar radiation to fry most of the scientific team, as well as creating weather anomalies on the West Coast. Disgusted at the outcome, he resigns. But his work is resumed by nefarious forces bent on using weather control as a means of global blackmail. Of course, it doesn’t work out, and soon monstrous hurricanes are approaching the United States from both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The scientist, realizing that his work has been corrupted, leaps into action in an attempt to save millions of lives.
Somewhere in this maelstrom, a Kansas farmhouse is about to collide tragically with a cow. We wrote huge set pieces. There were scenes that depicted lightning storms destroying downtown Los Angeles, floods decimating Manhattan, tornadoes ripping up the Midwest. We wrote a scene in which the scientist outruns boulder-sized hailstones in an SUV while simultaneously avoiding a cadre of armed government goons. We had a boiling tidal wave sweeping over Malibu. In a desperate attempt to seal the hole in the ionosphere, the scientist launched a Nanite missile to repair it. We wrote the sort of story that would make Roland Emmerich proud (although we had much more room for character than he usually allows).
We worked feverishly. The studio was constantly looking over our shoulders, calling us every few hours to check on our progress. With eighty pages to go before the end, they gave us a twenty-four hour deadline. We wrote sixty of those pages in a single eight-hour shift. With twenty more to go, I developed double vision. I couldn’t focus on my laptop. I intermittently entered a waking dream state. It was the most fatigued I had ever been. Matt finally ordered me to go home and get some sleep. He finished the last twenty pages according to our outline. I came back after getting minimal rest, and we emailed the script to the studio ten minutes before the deadline was up.
Then we both spent the next few days catching up on sleep. When I awoke, I discovered gray hairs in my beard. My first gray hairs.
An exec from the studio called that same day. The script had been read by everyone on the production team. While they liked what we had done, they had decided to pull back on the epic nature of the project due to budgetary cutbacks. Could we do another outline that considerably scaled it down? I exhaustedly agreed. We reconfigured everything, dialing down the script to more manageable levels, yet still keeping a few of the suspenseful set pieces and all of the characterization. We turned the outline in on a Friday.
The following Monday, I received a phone call from the exec in charge. “Bad news,” the exec said. “The studio decided to go in a different direction. They’re bringing in two other writers to take a pass on it. You know how it is. Politics.” And just like that, we were off the project. The only real plus was that our contract stipulated that we had to be paid the full amount for three drafts. Checks were quickly cut, and Megastorm, for us at least, was over.
In the summer of 2009, NBC aired a miniseries titled The Storm. The writing credits include “Based on an earlier teleplay by Matthew Chernov and David Rosiak.” The miniseries had been thoroughly reworked into a small-scale thriller. Some of the broad strokes of our structure still exist: there’s a weather control experiment overseen by a brilliant scientist… a brilliant scientist played by James Van Der Beek. That’s right… Dawson Leery is the hero. He’s accompanied in the cast by Luke Perry, of Beverly Hills 90210 fame. And despite these two luminaries of Prime Time soap fame sharing the screen, the universe doesn’t implode. Instead of huge set pieces, there’s… well, there’s a lot of rain and a little bit of lightning. Only two lines of dialogue from our script are left in the finished product, which plays more like an episodic procedural.
It was one of the worst-reviewed television productions of 2009. It has a 3.0 out of 10 rating on the IMDb and 2.5 review score on Netflix. Critics were merciless, decrying it as awful in every respect, but what they mostly attacked was the script. The script by the other two writers. Nowhere in the host of terrible notices were we mentioned. Because after all, we only got a “based on an earlier teleplay by” credit.
And a big fat check.