Tag Archives: Chip Johannessen

Homeland’s Chip Johannessen: Stories from the writers room

US writer-producer Chip Johannessen shares his approach to writing series television based on his spells on The X-Files spin-off Millennium, Fox hit 24 and Showtime’s Homeland.

Millennium/The X-Files
Johannessen wrote and produced for Fox series Millennium (pictured left below), which followed an ex-FBI agent who could see into the minds of criminals, between 1996 and 1999, before penning one episode of The X-Files – season seven’s Orison. Both shows were created by Chris Carter.

Millennium (left) and The X-Files

Point of view was a total obsession of Chris Carter, the showrunner on The X-Files and Millennium. Things like subjective camera moves helped you get into the characters’ heads.

By far the most important thing was tightening the sightlines to the point where the actor was almost speaking into the camera. This helped you get into the psychological unease of the characters.

But point of view is not just the shooting style, it gets baked into the script. Every scene has a point of view and every scene must take the past and drive it into the future. This is cause and effect – something happens, something else happens and because that happens, something else happens and so on.

Chip Johannessen
Chip Johannessen

Cause and effect is the glue that holds everything together. Without it, you have nothing – just a bunch of random crap happening. You would think you don’t have to say it, but the fact is cause and effect quickly goes out of the window if you’re not constantly reminded of it.

Stories are not robust, they’re fragile. If you have something that’s working, treasure it – because if you add one or two things that don’t belong, you go from having something that works to having something that doesn’t.

I do not believe in character scenes. When I’m told it’s a character scene, that’s a code for ‘nothing is going on here.’ In terms of driving the past into the future, that is not a good thing. When I hear that term, I get my scissors. This was the deal at The X-Files and Millennium: if a scene is not necessary, delete it; if a line is not necessary, delete it; and the scary part… if a word is not necessary, delete it.

Each scene was represented by a three-by-five card. At The X-Files and Millennium, if you did not believe in the alchemical properties of a perfectly lettered three-by-five card attached by push pin to a cork board, you would not survive in that shop. The stories were almost engineered and would appear to you from the board – you could see whether there were pieces not working well, if there was stuff you could get rid of. The cards can make non-writers into writers.


24
Johannessen was an executive producer of the action drama, which starred Kiefer Sutherland as CTU agent Jack Bauer, for season eight, which first aired on Fox in 2010. He was also a consulting producer for season seven (2009).

24-s8-ep1-1

The big innovation with 24 was, of course, the ‘real time’ element. Real time was in the air at that point. There had been a movie called Timecode that had split screens. We realised in The X-Files and Millennium there were advantages to it. A typical episode had four acts and by the top of act three you’d be breathless trying to get where you were going, and by four you’d be running in real time with a very tight timeline to the end.

What Joel Surnow did as writer of 24 was radical. He said: “Let’s take that energy and sustain it through every frame.” It means jump cuts and flashbacks are off the table. The only thing taking the past and driving it into the future is the life of the characters. If your sense of writing was two people come into a room to have a conversation, you were out in the cold; if your sense of writing was two people come into a room to talk about nothing, you were really out in the cold.

The other thing real time demands is that scenes start at the beginning and play out to the end. We have a sense of where the character is coming from, we have an entrance into the scene and then there’s usually an exit at the other side. In the middle, people have to deal with difficult situations in real time – they look very smart because they have a whole writers room behind them figuring out the smartest way to get through things.

This created an idea that a scene should only be about one thing, and that’s something we retained as we moved into Homeland.

We kept parts from The X-Files and Millennium and jettisoned others. The lighting was simplified and the horror story vocabulary was now gone, but we retained a strong sense of point of view. The producers and directors called it “human height” and everything was shot from there. We lost all the high and low angles unless it was actually somebody’s point of view, and that way we were very much in the action.

The one writerly conceit we did retain was cliffhangers. This is clearly a big thing in the binge-watching world. But we discovered early on that a good cliffhanger is not an action cliffhanger; it’s not putting a gun to somebody’s head where they’re going to die or get blown up. A good cliffhanger is something that upends your entire story, that changes everything. Something like: “The president is going to be assassinated.”

“Yes, Jack, that’s true – and you’re the one who’s going to do it.”


Homeland
Having worked with co-creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa on 24, Johannessen has executive produced all five seasons of Homeland. Season six is due to air later this year.

Homeland-s3-4

With Homeland, we had a much more naturalistic way of doing things. Instead of everything feeling staged, we wanted a feeling that the action was just captured, almost documentary style.

The language was more simple and natural. You could already see that happening in 24 because the language was simple and direct – Jack Bauer was an action hero and his language was often reduced to things like, “do it, do it now.” In Homeland we wanted to bring everything back down to earth.

To get the writer out of the script, we used reality as a trump card. We put a big emphasis on research. We did none, ever, at 24; we just made that shit up – it was a point of honour. We researched Homeland meticulously – ahead of every season, we take a trip to the CIA for three days and talk to a parade of spooks about what’s going on in the world. Ahead of the most recent season, they were all talking about Syria and Europe, so that’s where we ended up landing. We have technical consultants for everything – we try very hard to get it all right.

Even though the number of episodes is reduced compared with 24, where we felt like we were stumbling through and trying to survive, it still really exceeds one person’s ability to write that much material – particularly when you’re producing as well, which we all do at Homeland. This means we have multiple people in a serialised story, so we all have to be in the room together. If I’m writing episode three I have to know what happened in one and two, and have to know what to hand off to four and five.

We cling to the card system we inherited from The X-Files like a life preserver. The good thing is once we have the cards on the board we can hand those to anybody and they can go out and write a script. It’s not quite like a monkey could do it – that would depend on the monkey – but anybody who was there for the process is capable of writing the script.

So we’re asking writers to give up a lot. But if you serve the story, get rid of the noise, never do anything just because it’s cool and try to get rid of all the bad things we inherited from 40 years of bad broadcast TV, you get something very significant in return. You get a writing process generating pages that is so simple it is almost terrifying. All you do is close your eyes and you’re there with your characters and you let them speak.

But don’t let your actors drink coffee in scenes. They’ve already had enough.

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Scripted formats show writers’ double vision

Hardly a week goes by without some new development on the scripted format front. So here we explore 12 of the shows that have been adapted – successfully and unsuccessfully – for the US, and the writing teams behind them.

Where images have been included, the original series is on the left and its adaptation on the right.

Broadchurch-GracepointBroadchurch was a big hit for ITV in the UK when season one aired in 2013. It then sold around the world and was adapted by Fox in the US as Gracepoint, with the same lead actor (David Tennant). The UK version, which then had a moderately successful second season, was created and written by Chris Chibnall – who is now working on a third and final run before taking over on the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The 10-part US version was set up by Chibnall before being handed over to Anya Epstein and Dan Futterman, who wrote all of the remaining episodes except for number six (Jason Kim). Gracepoint was pretty well reviewed by critics and sold to other English-speaking markets. But it was not renewed after failing to secure a sizeable audience (average ratings were around 3.5 to four million).

Collision, created by UK writer Anthony Horowitz (Foyle’s War), attracted an audience of seven million when it aired on ITV in the UK during 2009. In November last year it was picked up by NBC as a 10-part series. Interestingly, Horowitz will be the showrunner for the US version, with CSI exec producer Carol Mendelsohn on board as partner. Mendelsohn is also exec producer of Game of Silence (see below), suggesting she is now regarded as a safe pair of hands for format adaptations after her many years working on CSI.

The original version of Collision comprised five episodes but Horowitz says he has no concerns about the project being extended because he believes the storyline will benefit from the extra episodes. Sometimes formats suffer from being stretched in this way.

Forbrydelsen-KillingForbrydelsen (The Killing) is a Danish series (DR/ZDF Enterprises) created by Soren Sveistrup. Active across three seasons, it became an international hit and made its star Sofie Gråbøl a household name. It was adapted by AMC in 2011 and has so far run to four seasons – despite being cancelled a couple of times along the way. It was saved by Netflix, which came on board as a partner for season three and then took over the show in its entirety for season four.

The US version was developed by Veena Sud, whose previous big credit was CBS procedural Cold Case. Sud shared writing duties with a large team, including the likes of Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Jeremy Doner (Damages). She stayed with the show through season four, by which time writing duties were shared with Dan Nowak, Sean Whitesell, Nicole Yorkin and Dawn Prestwich (the latter two a writing team whose credits include Chicago Hope, FlashForward and The Education of Max Bickford).

Hatufim-HomelandHatufim, aka Prisoners of War, is perhaps the most celebrated example of a successful scripted format. Created in Israel by Gideon Raff, it was adapted as Homeland for Showtime in the US by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. Five seasons of the US show have aired so far, with a sixth ordered in December 2015.

As is common with US series, there is a big team involved in writing a show like Homeland. The latest season of 12 episodes involved 11 writers altogether. Key names include Chip Johannessen, who has been involved with the show since the start. A new name on the season six team sheet was David Fury, who has worked on an array of titles ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Hannibal.

Janus is proof that US networks are looking further afield in search of great ideas. A crime story originated in Austria, it was picked up by ABC last autumn. Kevin O’Hare, who has written pilots for ABC and Syfy, is adapting the thriller and writing the pilot. The original version was written by Jacob Groll and Sarah Wassermair.

Prior to this seven-part serial, Groll was best known for documentary The Sound of Hollywood, while Wassermair’s credits include musicals for children’s theatre. However, the pair have also been working together on ORF’s popular crime series Soko Donau.

JanetheVirginJuana La Virgen is a Venezuelan telenovela that was adapted for The CW network in the US as Jane the Virgin. The original was created by Perla Farias and the US version by Jennie Snyder Urman, whose writing efforts are supported by a large team (the show has 22 episodes per season).

As evident from the titles above, a lot of adaptations don’t get further than the end of their first season. So the fact that this one has just been greenlit for a third run is a notable achievement. Although season two ratings are down compared with season one, the show has settled into a stable 0.9 to one million range.

Revenants-ReturnedLes Revenants was hailed as evidence that French TV drama had become a force to be reckoned with. A hit for Canal+ in 2012, the format was snapped up by A&E in the US – where it was remade as The Returned. The French version (based on a film) was created by Fabrice Gobert, who then wrote the screenplay for season one with Emmanuel Carrere and Fabien Adda (with writing credits also going to Camille Fontaine and Nathalie Saugeon).

A second season was aired at the end of 2015, with Audrey Fouche joining Gobert and Adda as a key writer (also credited on one episode was Coline Abert). Despite being led by showrunner Carlton Cuse alongside Raelle Tucker (True Blood), the US version failed to secure a second-season renewal following lacklustre ratings.

Øyevitne is a Norwegian crime thriller that is being adapted as Eyewitness for USA Network. In the US it has received a 10-episode, straight-to-series order. The US version comes from Shades of Blue creator Adi Hasak, who wrote it and will serve as showrunner. The original series creator is Jarl Emsell Larsen, who will executive produce the US version.

The series explores a grisly crime from the point of view of the eyewitnesses, two boys involved in a clandestine gay affair. While the Nordics have been getting a lot of attention in recent times, this is actually the first Norwegian scripted show to be adapted for the US.

Penoza-RedWidowPenoza is a popular Dutch drama created by Pieter Bart Korthuis and Diederik van Rooijen for KRO-NCRV. The show has run for four seasons (2010-2015), with a fifth, commissioned in February, set to air in September 2017. The format was acquired by ABC in the US in 2012 and ran for one season during 2013 with the name Red Widow.

The US version performed poorly and wasn’t renewed, dropping from 7.1 million at the start of its run to 3.47 million at the end. That was a rare blip for writer Melissa Rosenberg, whose credits include the entire Twilight saga of movies, Showtime’s Dexter and Netflix hit series Jessica Jones.

RakeRake is an Australian television series that centres on a brilliant but self-destructive lawyer. It was created by Peter Duncan, who then shared writing duties with Andrew Knight across the first three series. A fourth season will be broadcast this year on ABC Australia.

The show was adapted for Fox in the US in 2013, with Peter Duncan at the helm of a writing team of five. However, the show didn’t rate well and was moved around the schedule before being cancelled.

ShamelessShameless: Company Pictures produced Shameless for Channel 4 in the UK before it was picked up as a format by premium pay TV channel Showtime. The UK version was the brainchild of Paul Abbott, who also wrote a number of episodes. Other high-profile names involved included Danny Brocklehurst, who is now enjoying some success with Sky1’s The Five. Another prominent writer among many was Ed McCardie (Spotless).

Abbott was involved in setting up the US version, which may explain why the show has been a success, with six seasons already being aired. Key names in terms of transitioning the show included John Wells (ER, The West Wing) and Nancy Pimental – both of whom are still heavily involved, alongside a team of five writers for the latest season. Interestingly, the last season of the UK version also used a team approach, with eight writers penning 14 episodes.

Suskunlar-GameofSilenceSuskunlar is a Turkish drama that first aired on Show TV in 2012 and was then sold in its completed form to 30 countries. It was written by Pinar Bulut, who has also written a number of projects with her husband Kerem Deren, including fellow international hit Ezel.

The show was picked up by NBC in the US and has just started airing under the title Game of Silence. The pilot for the US version was written by David Hudgins, whose credits include Everwood and Parenthood. The second episode was penned by Wendy West (The Blacklist and Dexter). Hudgins has expressed a desire to take the show on into a second season, but early ratings suggest that it will need to do better for that to happen. After attracting 6.4 million viewers for episode one, it dropped 39% to 3.9 million for episode two.

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Writers go global

Hans Rosenfeld
Hans Rosenfeld is currently writing Marcella

At timing of writing this column, the C21 Drama Summit is taking place at the British Film Institute in London. In among the numerous producers, broadcasters and distributors attending the event, there has also been a star-studded line-up of screenwriters.

In no particular order, the summit attracted the likes of Stephen Poliakoff, Frank Spotnitz, Harlan Coben, Tony Jordan, Sarah Phelps, Paula Milne, Anna Winger, David Farr, Hans Rosenfeld, James Dormer, Charlie Higson, Simon Mirren, Clive Bradley and Chip Johannessen.

What’s interesting about these scribes is the unusual and idiosyncratic journeys that many of them are currently embarked upon. Rosenfeld, for example, is one of the main architects of acclaimed Scandinavian series The Bridge. But now he is writing an English-language crime series set in London, called Marcella. Winger, meanwhile, is an American who lives in Germany with her husband Joerg. Between them they created the well-reviewed period spy drama Deutschland 83, currently airing in Germany on RTL and around the world.

If it seems odd that an American co-wrote D83, then consider that British writer Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) has just done something similar, delivering The Same Sky to ZDF in Germany. In this case, she wrote scripts in English that were then translated into German by director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Clive Bradley, meanwhile, is an English screenwriter who has just finished working as the co-writer on Trapped, a pan-European coproduction set in snowy Iceland.

Deutschland 83
Deutschland 83, created by married team Joerg and Anna Winger

Harlan Coben, a novelist, has just written his first TV drama, The Five, in collaboration with Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Clocking Off). Farr, meanwhile, is a playwright adapting a John Le Carre novel The Night Manager for TV. In one of his anecdotes at the Summit, Farr talked of meeting Le Carre in a north London pub and having to pluck up the courage to tell the great man the last 100 pages of his novel wouldn’t work on TV. Sarah Phelps must have felt just as nervous when she met Hilary Strong of Agatha Christie Ltd to discuss how she would go about adapting Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None.

Poliakoff’s session was enlightening, providing an insight into the way he has honed his skills as a writer-director. While many would think of him first and foremost as a playwright and screenwriter, Poliakoff spent much of his session discussing the directorial dimension of his latest project Close to the Enemy. Casting, rigorous rehearsals and location selection were as significant to the realisation of Poliakoff’s vision of the series as story and dialogue.

Stephen Polliakoff
Stephen Polliakoff is working on Close to the Enemy

Frank Spotnitz, an American residing in Europe, was at the summit to discuss his latest project for Amazon, The Man in the High Castle, while Chip Johannessen provided insight into the adaptation of Israeli show Prisoners of War into his hit series Homeland. Simon Mirren was in town to talk about the creation of Versailles, the English-language, French production of a quintessentially French subject. That seems a long way from where his career started – as a writer on Casualty.

So what does all the above tell us? Well, it shows that the idea of the writer as a solitary creature is something of a myth. While part of the job inevitably involves shutting the study door and blocking out distractions, just as much is dependent on a willingness and ability to interact with other parts of the production chain.

At the same time, the shift towards international coproduction (in order to realise ambitious creative ideas) means writers have to be surefooted on the international stage. It’s noteworthy just how many of the above scribes have had to collaborate across borders or set scenes abroad. Milne talked about watching rushes of The Same Sky after her words had been translated in German, and having to make a judgement on whether the emotional impact of the dialogue had survived the shift to a new language. Rosenfeld, meanwhile, discussed the support he needed to ensure Marcella’s London life was authentic.

Chip Johannssen
Chip Johannssen turned Prisoners of War into Homeland for Showtime

Another theme throughout the summit has been the way the current era of ambitious international drama production allows writers to cut loose creatively. Farr talked about how writers used to be scared to set a scene outside – let alone in a foreign country. But this concern has been blown away as dramas head for increasingly exotic climes.

This freedom is also evident in the range of literary reimaginings currently on show. Charlie Higson’s interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde (in which he injects his own mythology), Tony Jordan’s literary mash-up Dickensian and James Dormer’s reworking of the Beowulf saga are all examples of how traditional budgeting and commissioning constraints have fallen away.

Of course, a key implication of the above is that writers need to be trusted to deliver against bold objectives. And this is creating a challenge for the scripted business. Understandably, the broadcasters and distributors that put up millions of dollars to make drama projects a reality are anxious to ensure they work with proven writers. This is causing a logjam, with the best writers often booked up for years to come.

While this is good news for those writers who are in demand, the clear message is that the industry needs to improve the flow of new writing talent coming through. C21 and Red Planet are both playing their part with scriptwriting competitions, but there needs to be a more formal solution to this issue if the drama business is to keep up its extraordinary creative momentum.

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The UnREAL deal

UnREAL is a hit with the critics but its debut attracted disappointing ratings
Marti Noxon’s UnREAL is a hit with the critics but its debut attracted disappointing ratings

A+E Studios’ reality TV satire UnREAL launched on Lifetime in the US this week, and has attracted positive plaudits from critics. Time Magazine called it “dark, deft and empathetic,” while the Hollywood Reporter said the show “moves along at an engaging, entertaining pace.”

The LA Times, meanwhile, suggested UnREAL might help Lifetime shift perceptions about the kind of shows it airs: “Built on a pair of strong, nuanced, cliché-free performances by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer this is a Lifetime series that transcends the words ‘Lifetime series.’”

Created by Marti Noxon (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro – whose short film Sequin Raze inspired the series – UnREAL is about the seedy goings on at a hit dating show that is loosely based on The Bachelorette. It follows a young producer called Rachel (Appleby) who is willing to do anything to please her executive producer boss (Zimmer). Her main job is to manipulate contestants in order to get outrageous footage for the show, which she constantly feels guilty about.

Noxon, the senior partner in the creative team behind UnREAL, is a TV industry veteran who first came to prominence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for which she wrote or co-wrote 22 episodes. Since then she has written and produced for a number of projects. Looking specifically at writing credits, Noxon has penned episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men and Glee, as well as serving as head writer on the first season of Private Practice.

The last couple of years have been particularly fruitful for Noxon. In 2013, it was announced she would write a reboot of Tomb Raider for MGM and GK Films. Then, just ahead of the debut of UnREAL on Lifetime, she launched Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce for cable channel Bravo. Centred on a self-help author whose private life doesn’t measure up to her public persona, the show was the channel’s first foray into original scripted production. Noxon wrote five of the 13 episodes, including the first and last. With a decent ratings performance and positive reviews, Girlfriends’ Guide has been renewed for a second season.

Grace and Frankie, from Marta Kauffman, will return for a second season
Grace and Frankie, from Marta Kauffman, will return for a second season

Noxon’s skill, it seems, is her ability to create storylines based around authentic female characters who attempt to juggle career progression, family, romance and friendship. In particular, she is able to run through the full emotional range, from humour to heartache. Commenting on Noxon’s early episodes of the Bravo show, the Chicago Sun-Times said they reveal a “nuanced, poignant tale, punctuated by some genuinely funny scenes.”

Having said all this, the initial audience figures for episode one of UnREAL were not good, with the show failing to pick up the ratings baton from Devious Maids, which led the programme in on its launch night.

Given the positive reaction from critics, this suggests two possibilities – first that audiences are not comfortable having the fantasy of ‘reality TV’ shattered (like meat-eaters who would rather not visit the abattoir); or, second, that the show is not a good fit for Lifetime (think back to that comment from the LA Times in the opening paragraph).

We’ll need to wait a few more episodes to develop an accurate picture of the show’s performance. But if it carries on in the same way, Lifetime will have to make a decision about whether it cut its losses or if renewing UnREAL will send out a message to audiences about where the channel actually wants to be in terms of brand profile. Internationally, the show might work well for channels that have a tougher, more satirical edge than we associate with Lifetime. Either way, UnREAL is likely to enhance Noxon’s status.

Sticking with talented female writers/producers, Marta Kauffman has been in the news this week. Kauffman will forever be known as the co-creator of Friends, arguably the most successful sitcom ever. But she has been consistently busy since that show ended way back in 2004. Her most recent project is Grace and Frankie, a sitcom for Netflix that was renewed late last month.

A US version of Doc Martin is in the works
Electus and Marta Kauffman are working on a US version of Doc Martin

This week it was announced that Kauffman is teaming up with Ben Silverman’s producer/distributor Electus to make a US version of Doc Martin, a British comedy drama about a successful London surgeon who moves to a sleepy village in Cornwall. Doc Martin is something of a phenomenon, having been remade in territories such as France, Germany and Spain and sold as a completed series worldwide. With Kauffman and Silverman on board, it now stands a real chance of cracking the US too – though the sedate UK version will probably need to be injected with amphetamines to appeal to US cable channels.

Commenting, Silverman said: “Doc Martin has charmed viewers worldwide with its excellent concept and unique style of comedy, and we’re proud to be working with Marta Kauffman. She and her team are brilliant partners.”

In one of this week’s high-profile scripted stories, Showtime’s hit series Homeland has just started production on series five. The new set of 12 episodes will be filmed in and around Berlin – making Homeland “the first American TV series to shoot entirely in Germany,” according to Showtime and Fox21 Television Studios.

Echoing our comments about Mad Men in an earlier Writers Room, it’s fascinating to see just how many people are involved in making big US dramas work. Typically, Homeland is credited to Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff, the US and Israeli executives who successfully transformed Israeli series Prisoners of War into the long-running US show. But if you look at the executive producer line-up for season five, it also includes Alex Gansa, Alexander Cary, Chip Johannessen, Meredith Stiehm, Patrick Harbinson, Lesli Linka Glatter, Avi Nir and Ran Telem.

Gansa, who previously worked on The X-Files and Dawson’s Creek, is actually a co-creator of the show alongside Gordon and Raff, and has handled a number of key episodes throughout its life. Cary, Johannessen and Stiehm have also been writing on the show since the beginning, which presumably gives the production the kind of stable creative spine that ensures longevity.

Meredith Stiehm is part of the big team behind Showtime hit Homeland
Meredith Stiehm is part of the big team behind Showtime hit Homeland

Continuing this week’s bias towards successful female writers, it’s interesting to note how Stiehm has built her career in a broadly similar way to Noxon and Kauffman, mixing writing jobs with series creator/showrunner roles. After breaking into the business on classic series like Northern Exposure and Beverly Hills 90210, she went on to create Cold Case, which ran for seven seasons on CBS. After Cold Case, she came on board Homeland but still found time to adapt Nordic drama The Bridge for FX.

Stiehm was also linked to Cocaine Cowboys, a project originally developed by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay for HBO. In the endlessly shifting world of US TV, however, that project ended up being piloted for TNT and written by Michelle Ashford, the creator/executive producer of Showtime’s Masters of Sex and a writer on HBO’s 2010 miniseries The Pacific. The latest word on Cocaine Cowboys is that it is undergoing creative surgery.

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