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Scriptapalooza winner Ken Kemp explains how his pilot plucked the prize

"Attaché". The term may evoke cinematic images of FBI agents traipsing through foreign lands, Sean Connerylike, Bluetooths in their dental caps* and gorgeous women at their sides.

Ken Kemp, First-place winner for best pilot TV script in the Scriptapalooza TV writingcontest, 2014
Twain Newhart

All of this is a fairly safe bet when you're getting ready to read the Scriptapalooza Television award-winning pilot from writer-director Ken Kemp. At once fresh and fun, "Attaché"'s "Forward Lateral" also demands a level of intelligence from its audience as it entertains.

This Examiner grew up in the same small California town as the scriptwriter, Livermore, even graduating from high school the same year. His dad was a noted orthodontist; my mom a popular elementary school teacher. It was a pastoral and safe environment, even with its proximity to a certain world-famous nuclear laboratory.

After hearing he'd won the coveted Scriptapalooza prize, announced Feb. 13, I e-mailed Kemp some questions.

Following is an edited transcript of our online conversation.


First, tell me about your award. What are the implications of winning such a prestigious prize, and what is the next step?

Scriptapalooza is a well-known writing contest, and one of the few that have a TV-specific competition. As the winning script, they sent "Attaché" out to several television production companies. So winning an award like this opens the doors right up and gives you credibility. It lets people in the industry know you’re professional, and that make it easier to get meetings.

The next step is to partner with a major production company, take it to the networks and cable companies, get series order, then onto your TV.

(He later explained, when I asked, that "series order" means getting picked up, essentially, and being tasked with writing episodes each week.)

OK, now just a bit about your background. How did you get started in scriptwriting?

I had my own corporate film production company for many years. I wrote at least a hundred marketing and training scripts, but that didn’t really satisfy my creative urges, so I started writing screenplays. The first few were pathetic - derivative, lacking character development, predictable. The more screenplays I read and the more I wrote, the better I got. But what really gave me the tools to move my scriptwriting to the next level was taking the Pro Series writing course at Screenwriting U.

I know that sounds like a shameless plug, but Hal Croasmun’s class taught me, among other things, to examine multiple ways of doing the same scene. What if you change the setting? What are ten ways your character might communicate this line? It forces you to look beyond the obvious —where the magic’s found.

On to "Attaché". What a marvelous idea for a series. How did it come about?

I was producing swimming at the Olympic Games and there was an FBI agent at our venue. The first thing I thought was, “What’s the FBI doing here? I thought they were strictly domestic law enforcement.”

My curiosity got the better of me and I found out that the FBI does indeed have foreign operatives, called legal attachés. And their job is to solve crimes committed against Americans and protect Americans abroad. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Not exactly. They have no case authority, no jurisdiction, and in most countries they’re not allowed to carry a gun - great, built-in conflict. But given these impediments, how exactly do they solve crimes?

Turns out legal attachés must work with local law enforcement or intelligence agency liaisons; they run the cases - more potential conflict. When I started doing my research I found out two things: This branch of law enforcement’s never been seen on TV before, and there’s a virtually unlimited supply of real case files from which to mine future episode ideas. And with FBI case files, fact is definitely stranger than fiction.

That’s when I knew I had to write this series.

In reading your pilot episode, which is set in Greece, I wondered if there might be some production challenges. How do you envision the series being filmed; will the sky be the limit in terms of locations?

Crime dramas are familiar and very popular. But today’s television audience is global. I wanted to push the boundaries beyond a local precinct or a big city. Roemer works out of FBI Headquarters in Washington D.C., but his cases take him to a different country each week. This gives us the unique opportunity to work with our foreign country’s best talent, as Roemer’s liaison."

I don’t foresee any more production challenges than shows like "Covert Affairs" [on the USA Network] face. We shoot our star and foreign co-star in front of familiar landmarks, move to the next country, and do the same. We shoot exteriors from several scripts, over a short period of time, and amortize costs over those episodes.

I thought your character development was extraordinary. The lead character, Roemer, is able to show both the smarts and machismo of a special agent, or as you say attaché, while also revealing his human side - such as in the interplay with his son or fellow agent. How do you go about writing such well-wrought characters?

Part of the answer is research. When I conceived the idea for the series I
went directly to the FBI. Even though it’s fiction, I wanted to couch the series in reality. IOD (International Operations Division) granted me unprecedented access. I was able to review real cases, but I also got to interview nine of the top current and former legal attachés who’d worked all over the world.

Not only were their stories intriguing, they were amazing. These guys are smart, charismatic, badass, and real. So Roemer’s an amalgamation of those guys and my imagination.

It seems that a show such as this is timely, given the success of programs like "Scandal" and "Castle" [on ABC] or the "CSI" series [on CBS]. This seems like a more sophisticated type of show [than those] in the sense that viewers will need basic knowledge of what goes on with attachés. Do you agree? And if so, how could viewers ramp up to learn about these individuals assigned to diplomatic missions?

I disagree actually [that viewers would need basic knowledge about the subject]. I don’t like shows that play down to their audience. And I think viewers are pretty savvy. Think of ER, you knew what a GSW was, but how many people know what a pneumothorax is, or what the pyloric valve does? Does it matter? There’s a victim in distress and the doctors are trying to save their life.

The first thing I had to get my head around, when working with the FBI, is they speak in a shorthand of acronyms and initials. CIRG is the Critical Incident Response Group. SCIF: Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. HRT: Hostage Rescue Team. RDT: Rapid Deployment Team. Even a legal attaché is called a "legat". If I tried to explain that in the script, it wouldn’t sound authentic. I think the audience will be intrigued enough to come along for the ride, or Google during commercials. Like I said, they’re a savvy audience.

You and I grew up together in a small town in California, Livermore. My mother was your fifth grade teacher, and we share several Facebook friends from high school. Do you ever draw upon anything from your environment there?

I think all writers draw on personal experiences. We just embellish them in the retelling. It’s also easy to create bigger-than-life characters based on people you knew as a kid — the bully, the beauty, the jock, the nerd. We went to school with them.

And we grew up before helicopter parents. I got in fights, had to go to the principal’s office. My friends and I rode our bikes everywhere, without helmets, and never worried about being kidnapped.

Livermore was a great place to grow up — very suburban, but close enough to San Francisco that the cultural experiences the city offered were just a short drive away.

Your mom was a great teacher. Very encouraging. But I remember not doing well in spelling. Thank God for Spellcheck.

Getting back to scriptwriting, tell me which other writers inspire you. If they are on any shows, please tell me which shows.

There are several. You mentioned "Castle". I think its creator, Andrew Marlowe, is brilliant. He’s perfected the dramedy genre. But making his main character a famous, fictional, crime writer, then spinning off books written by him, pure genius.

Aaron Korsh, the creator of "Suits" [on the USA Network] because his characters and dialogue are so damn good. Howard Gordon, "Homeland" [on Showtime] and "24" [on Fox] because he creates such interesting, flawed characters. And Beau Willimon, whom I met last year, the creator of "House of Cards". I love the way he reinvented and invigorated an old British series for Netflix.

What advice would you have for young or even middle-aged scriptwriters (ahem) who want to break in?

Read a lot of screenplays. You’ll start to see patterns and similarities. Write. Writing begets writing. It’s like anything, the more you practice the better you get. But, as my mom used to say, “Only perfect practice makes perfect.” Take a screenwriting class. It will help focus your efforts and stop you wasting time on stories nobody will buy.

I admire your discipline, your command of the language, your imagination and also your confidence. Would you say these are the primary qualities of a successful scriptwriter in Hollywood?

Thank you, I appreciate the compliment. I think anyone engaged in a creative endeavor has moments of self-doubt. So winning this award really helps push those out of my mind and get on with getting the series set up and in production.

Confidence is important; you have to trust your gut. But when it comes to what you want to write, it’s vitally important that you have a trusted group of people – not your mom – to bounce ideas off.

How would you cast your show? Who's in the title roles?

I think it’s a bit too soon to be talking about casting. I have some favorites, but I’ll keep those to myself for now.

OK, fair enough. Any shows/movies you modeled this after? It feels very fresh, but certainly you brought in elements of other shows?

I wanted to create something fresh, but crime procedurals are popular because they have a familiar flow. I wanted a male lead. There are a lot of procedurals with female leads right now. Not many smart, badass men.

I think that’s one of the reasons I like J.J. Abrams’ new series, "Almost Human" ]on Fox]: It has a badass, flawed, male lead. My show’s set in the present, and based on reality – mostly.

* - Taken from Ken Kemp's pilot, "Forward Lateral"

For a list of all winners in the Scriptapalooza Television categories, please click here.

All bold marks/hyperlinks are those of the Examiner's.

Note: Kemp's literary manager, James Ganiere, has announced on his website that "Attaché" has "already made it to Universal Cable Productions, Teakwood Lane (Homeland, Awake, 24)." And Kemp is ready to go: he's written two additional episodes and outlined another 25.

Photo by: Twain Newhart

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