When Mike Makowsky decided to tackle the mid-2000s Roslyn Union Free School District embezzlement scandal for the screen, he wasn’t entirely sure how to navigate the story.
Makowsky, who went to school in the district and met one of the key figures, Frank Tassone, as a child, visited his former high school and spoke to a few teachers there. Then he re-read and optioned Robert Kolker’s New York magazine piece on the case, which morphed into HBO’s Emmy-nominated “Bad Education.”
And Makowsky is hardly alone: All five of this year’s television movie nominees are adapted, to some extent — Netflix’s “American Son” from the Broadway play of the same name; Netflix’s “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings: These Old Bones” from Parton’s 2002 song “These Old Bones”; and the same streamer’s “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend,” both one-off continuations in new formats from prior series. Moving known stories to a new medium came with unique challenges for each set of writers and producers.
After working on 62 episodes of “Breaking Bad,” “El Camino” scribe Vince Gilligan found himself outside the comfort of a traditional writers’ room and having to craft the script solo.
“It’d been so long since I’ve written anything by myself, that I wanted [the] challenge to see if I could do it,” he says.
Gilligan did eventually show it to the writing staff of the “Breaking Bad” prequel, “Better Call Saul,” which led to changing the title, as well as adding a scene with Krysten Ritter’s Jane.
There was also the pivot away from writing in act breaks, to which Gilligan was accustomed when “Breaking Bad” was on cabler AMC. Initially, he intended to embrace the three-act structure, but moved from it after breaking the story.
For the “Kimmy Schmidt” writers, the shift was even more dramatic, as they moved from a 30-minute comedy to sprawling “choose your own adventure”-like storytelling, where the viewer got to control the narrative.
In doing that, “it was actually like we were writing five or six [films] at once, and they all somehow had to line up and actually make sense,” says writer and executive producer Sam Means.
Playing with the format also allowed the writers to find new ways to tell jokes. “One thing we would never have in the series is silence,” Means says. “But in the movie, we needed to leave 10 to 20 seconds at every choice point for the viewer to enter their decision, and we quickly discovered that having the characters make a bunch of rapid-fire jokes while that was going on was just distracting. So that forced us to find ways to make those moments funny without getting in the way of the interactivity, like Titus doing vocal warmups, or [Prince] Frederick giving Kimmy come-hither looks.”
It also allowed the scribes to have their characters behave outside the established norms.
“Kimmy’s a good, moral person who would never kill anyone — but we let her kill the Reverend three different ways,” writer and executive producer Meredith Scardino says. “As a viewer, you inherently know that killing the Reverend is the wrong choice for Kimmy, and not something that is in her character’s DNA, but it’s cathartic to watch her [do that]. Then, of course, the viewer has to deal with the consequences of making those choices for Kimmy.”
With a different kind of history to lean on for “Bad Education,” Makowsky dug into his hometown’s archives, reading Tassone’s op-eds (written prior to his conviction), and consulting those who knew him. But he was keenly aware how much Kolker’s article helped with the adaptation.
“What Kolker did was find a really interesting, very literary approach — almost Dickensian — to the unfolding of the events and structured in such a way that you really felt the pathos, drama and the mounting tension,” he says.
Plus, being able to tell the story removed from the real events has its own benefits. “It gives you a little more freedom to really see the full portrait of what happened in a more nuanced and objective way,” Makowsky adds.