A miniseries milestone

Fin. The end. That’s a wrap. And I can’t quite believe it.

This is a post two, seven, or twenty-seven years in the making, depending on when you start the clock.

Short version: The miniseries breakdown of my Eager Beavers feature script is finished. If you care for the story behind it, read on.

The Egg

Sometime around 2013, when I was struggling to contain the story of Zeamer’s Eager Beavers to the feature screenplay format, a screenwriter friend made the comment that the thing “might be better suited to a dang miniseries.”

The idea wasn’t new to me, not after Band of Brothers and The Pacific. And A&E’s Hatfields & McCoys series had just set records for viewership. I’d never really entertained the idea before, though, because my view of it had always been on the big screen. Those big bombers, those incredible vistas—it felt wrong, even disrespectful, not to set them against the panorama of the silver screen. Plus there was the fact that the part of the story I’d been telling up to then just didn’t seem long enough to fill multiple episodes of a series. So the egg had already been dropped in my brain. It just hadn’t been cracked.

Having someone else suggest it broke it open. Still, nostalgia, habit, and momentum wouldn’t let me do anything with it. It just sat there waiting to get cooked while I kept trying to make this other dish work.

Flashback

It seemed like it could. The final version of my first crack at the feature script of Above and Beyond, way back in 1994, was 124 pages long. Perfect length for this kind of material, and it got got high marks from those who read it. Multiple major production companies, in fact, requested the script, loved the story, but said they already had WWII stories in development. It was the 50th anniversary of WWII, after all. But for that? I’ll never know, but it’s tantalizing to think about.

Photo of script query reply

Deep down, though, I didn’t feel I’d captured the individual men well enough, and after moving on to other projects for a few years, I came back to it. I hired a respected script consultant attached to the Austin Film Festival to give it a read. She raved about it, but sensed what I did. More distinct men, more time with the men, and more narrative drive. When in discussing all that I gave her more of the backstory, she said, “Put that in!” I’d always wanted to, but, you know, 124 pages. Much more than two hours makes a harder sell. I wanted to give it a shot, though, and wanted a fresh take. So I started the script from scratch. A page-one rewrite. Almost nothing of the original ended up in the new version.

I’d decided by then that I did want to adapt the script as a novel at some point—the idea of having a book and a script to sell together, like was done with Argo, seemed like a good plan—so I opted to put everything in the script that I’d want in the book. I’d simply pare down for the feature script.

Heh.

The first draft of the new version was 213 pages long. That’s a 3.5-hour movie. Now I have no problem losing material; I’ve been ruthless on earlier scripts. I’d planned on it here and knew in advance scenes I could drop if necessary. And I did. I cut out half an hour worth of story. That’s a full quarter of a normal script.

Normal scripts aren’t 3.5 hours long, though. I still had three hours. I spent weeks nipping and tucking, analyzing structure and scenes to see if I could take something out. But I’d planned the story and scenes to the rivets, and packed each scene like a backcountry hiker. I finally decided to try getting rid of the first act, which served as a sort of prologue and I loved, and that the script consultant told me I should add. Some efficient exposition in the new first act could serve, though.

That got it down to 153 pages. Still very long by current standards, but in line with the genre even at that time. I sent it out to fellow screenwriters to see what they thought. They liked it, but universally said it needed trimming. Universally they also didn’t know what I could trim without the story and characterizations suffering. And when I sent them the original first act they universally said it helped the story. In a word, huh.

Switching gears

That’s when I glanced over at the other side of the stove, at that uncooked egg sitting there. It dawned on me to me that at 3.5 hours, I already had more than half of Hatfields & McCoys. I could easily bring in another half hour of material to get to 4-5 episodes of 45-60 minutes.

Let’s pause for a moment to smile and say “awwww” at my innocence.

That was in 2016. I made the decision to pursue a miniseries adaptation then, but still felt like a website dedicated to the crew should come first, and the novel so an film or mini could help it. The website took, cumulatively, about a year, between the original content and Zeamer’s biography. That was not unexpected.

Adapting to the novel, however, was far, far more work than I ever anticipated, partly because I was starting it before the events in the script and had to research that much more than I previously had, but mostly because the level of detail required in the novel required vastly more research even than I’d done for the script. Throw in homeschooling, an unexpected house move, a new home business, and a broken hand (twice, actually), and progress slowed to a crawl.

Pulling focus

All the while, signs were piling up that I needed to focus on the miniseries adaptation. Cinema-size TVs were cheaper and more ubiquitous than ever. Theatrical tickets sales were continuing to fall. Netflix and Amazon were becoming massive content makers themselves, and limited series were becoming an increasing part of streaming content. World War II and Medal of Honor-related films were still coming out and getting large respect and audiences. By 2018 I couldn’t ignore it anymore, and officially shelved the novel to focus on the series adaptation.

It would start with Jay and Joe in their youth, which meant compiling all the material I had for both and creating a narrative from that. I’d already written Zeamer’s biography for the website, so that made his easier, but Sarnoski’s was barely started. And I had to find a way to collapse both of their lives up to the point they join the service into three representative vignettes apiece for the first episode. That proved to be the biggest challenge of the whole endeavor.

Second was creating a full timeline and deciding what I’d include in the series, and then estimating the screen time required for all of it to have a realistic idea of each episode length, all while ensuring each episode ended at a natural narrative break. If that sounds like a lot of work, you’d be right. Add in all the aforementioned life developments and you get to this past fall.

Final approach

Even the downhill slope of writing the summaries from the episode breakdowns had more moguls than I anticipated. Certain story elements, like the enduring mystery of what was behind Zeamer’s combat-less, mostly flightless summer of ’41, required more research and narrative decisions. Thanks again to the also-decades-long monumental work of IHRA, Larry Hickey’s publishing company, whose group histories have been an inestimable cross-reference to my own documentation, I was able to crack those final nuts. With the story synopses I’d written back in 2013 and the story as written on the website, I was able to create the last three summaries over the past few days.

And here, suddenly it seems, I am, with the last screen version of this story I plan to create—unless and of course it sells like I hope and believe it should, and the production company is inclined to let this unproduced screenwriter from Texas to help write the series scripts. It’s not likely. Far more likely is that they would request my feature script, and hand it and the episode breakdown off to a proven, A-list screenwriter to write. My most realistic hope is to be attached as a story/script consultant, though I’m going to everything I can to be attached as a producer, which would give me at least a little more control over what happens to the story. I haven’t worked on getting this story to the screen for almost thirty years to give it up that easily. I already turned down one producer who wanted to turn it into another Dirty Dozen. Cold, dead hands and all that.

We’ll see what the future holds. The timing couldn’t be better, in an unfortunate sense: the pandemic has more people at home demanding more content than ever. Spielberg and Hanks’s adaptation of Masters of the Air is back in full development, which I’m convinced only helps Above and Beyond. And a limited series about Audie Murphy, the most highly decorated soldier of World War II, was announced this past fall.

I already have a list of producers and directors I want to contact about Above and Beyond. I also already have the query written, a variation of the one I wrote in 1994 that got an impossible 60% read-request rate. And I think this one is better than the first. We’ll see. At least I know that I’ve now done the best I know how to do to get this story the attention it deserves. If it fails to catch, that’s on me, but I don’t know what else I can do except keep putting it out there.

And I will keep putting it out there, because it’s all a matter of connecting with the right person, and because there’s nothing like this incredible story out there. Based on the refrain of everybody who reads the story—”This ought to be a movie/miniseries!”—there ought to be. So I just need to keep getting it in front of people.

Starting tomorrow.  Today, I exhale.

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