How a 'New Girl' script gets made: From outline to final cut on 'TinFinity'
Story ideas don't always come easy, but the work is usually worth it for the great FOX comedy
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As they move back and forth through the story again, Philbin suggests Jess get Jax to forget about the bathroom situation by giving a variation on Julia Roberts’ famous “Notting Hill” speech: “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a guy who saw her poop.” Finkel grabs the phone and claims that they’ve just won a Humanitas Prize for the idea.
Pope and Kasdan exit a few minutes later, but the debate continues over every possible iteration of every beat of the story: Does Jess see Nick get the phone number? Does she get it on his behalf to prove that she’s over him? What scene will they cut to the opening credits from?(**) As the minutes tick by, everything seems to be in flux except Jess saying “I need another mouth on my mouth” and the embarrassing incident at the porta potty.
(**) Whomever is running through the current version of the outline (usually Baer) will recite one story beat after another, then race through the “Hey, girl, whatcha doin’?” opening line to the theme song to signal the break to credits. The final version of the episode is so long that it gets the abbreviated theme, with no “Hey, girl.”
This is par for the course at “New Girl,” where the writers break and re-break stories over and over until everyone’s satisfied they have the funniest and most emotionally resonant version of it ready to go. “Fancyman,” the season 1 episode where the series seemed to find its voice, was originally built around an Occupy Wall Street-style protest before the angle was ultimately dropped. When Rahke jokes that they should change Jax to a British guy, Rosenstock groans, recalling a long time spent on a previous episode working on a British character whom they later scrapped.
“We’ve broken nine seasons of this show, at least,” speculates Malmuth.
Kasdan briefly returns at one point and remarks that they’re all in the same positions, working on the same problems as when he left them two hours before.
As the writers take a break, one yawns and jokes, “There was a time in my life when I didn’t know the words ‘New Girl.’”
When Philbin, Rosenstock, Malmuth, Rahke and Lear reconvene, answers still aren’t easy to come by. The current outline has Winston keeping track of Jax as part of his job, babysitting him for some kind of station promotion, but no one is sure how much, if at all, viewers care about Winston’s job.
Philbin gets up to study the whiteboard where the outline is written, then rests her head on Baer’s desk and asks, “God, why is this so hard?”
“I don’t know,” Malmuth replies.
From out of frustration comes inspiration. Philbin grabs a second whiteboard and begins a brand-new version of the outline. The empty surface seems to recharge the batteries of everyone in the room — it’s a fresh start, rather than moving the same pieces around and around — and almost immediately they lock on a Winston angle that makes sense: as a failed pro athlete, he’s desperate to befriend a real one, and views Jess’s attempt to seduce Jax as something that could ruin his budding friendship with the guy. Now, he has that all-important story drive they were discussing earlier. Rather than just commenting on the action, he has a goal himself: to get between Jess’s mouth and Jax’s by any means necessary. They had always planned to have a touch football game at the party as an excuse for physical comedy, and now Winston will suffer for trying to block Jess’s play.
“I feel we reinvent the episodes until the very last moment,” says Philbin. “We are not scared to throw things out.”(**)
(**) It’s only after they’ve cracked the code that Philbin turns to me with the “dummies” line. It’s easier to acknowledge how long it took you to climb the hill once you’re nearing the top.
There’s a palpable sense of relief in the room, particularly after Finkel and Baer return and are pleased to hear the new approach. All agree this is a better idea than Winston teaching Jess football, which Malmuth calls “a soft premise.”
“We can come up with something,” says Baer. “We just have to put the work in.”
Meriwether enters, moving from one showrunning task to another — in a few minutes, she’ll be interrupted by a crew member telling her, “We need a cat decision,” to which she decisively replies, “We prefer 10 live cats.” — and listens to Baer deliver the new pitch. She sees potential in the new Winston angle, but is now concerned about what Jess is getting out of the conflict.
“I feel like it could get there, but it’s not there yet,” she says. But after more discussion, she declares, “I think you’re in a good zone with that.”
“At 8:30 on a Friday, she said, ‘It’s alright!’” declares a relieved Finkel. Earlier, Malmuth had referred to the afternoon as “an athletic story-breaking,” but all are satisfied the extra time was worth it, and that the story is in much better shape than when they started.
This is the end of my visit, but far from the end of the process of working on “TinFinity.” The writers are there that night until 11, and Baer and Finkel until 2 in the morning, first working on the eponymous story about Nick and Schmidt’s anniversary before everyone is assigned a different part of the outline to flesh out.
They work over the weekend on their assignments to create what’s called “a Frankenstein draft,” because on Sunday, Baer and Finkel have to stitch the different pieces together into a cohesive whole, which they’ll then polish with Meriwether all the way through to the table read by the whole cast on Tuesday.