Frank Spotnitz on Creating Complex TV Series

frank spotnitzFrank Spotnitz
(photo by Glen Golightly)

by Kelly Jo Brick

The Writers Guild Foundation recently hosted an evening with Frank Spotnitz as he shared his experiences and insights from his time writing for a variety of TV series including THE X-FILES, HUNTED, STRIKE BACK, ROBBERY HOMICIDE DIVISION as well as taking us into the world of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, an Amazon series he has written, executive produced and developed. TVWriter.com’s Contributing Editor, Kelly Jo Brick, was there to bring you highlights from the event.

ADVICE FOR WRITERS IN THE EARLY STAGES OF THEIR CAREER

My advice would be to have faith in themselves, to not get discouraged, to keep working hard. To know that you are a writer whether anybody’s paying you to write or not. And to be patient because it takes time to get your craft down. The only way to do it is to keep at it.

HOW HE GOT INTO WRITING

I think if you’re a writer there’s something wrong and I say that in the nicest possible way. Something has happened that is not good. It’s made you decide you should spend a long section of your life alone in a room staring at a screen. Why would you do that? There were some things that were not terribly satisfying in my life and part of that was moving around a lot as a child, which I think forced me to be sort of self-sufficient and it’s probably one of the reasons why I lived in my own head a lot. And I had parents who didn’t supervise my television watching.  So I watched thousands of hours, I watched everything.

HOW HE GOT HIS JOB ON THE X-FILES

I moved from Paris back to L.A. to go to film school. Before I started AFI, I was invited to join this book group and in this group were some really interesting people. One of them wrote TV movies for Disney and his name was Chris Carter. So I was in this book group for about two years. We’d meet every few months, read classic books and talk about them over dinner. Chris was a really nice guy, really smart. Then the book group came to an end. I finished film school and I’m watching TV one Friday night and oh, it’s THE X-FILES and Chris Carter, the guy from my book group had written the show. This is pretty good, so I kept watching.

Then toward the end of the first season, a friend of mine, who I’d known since I was ten years old, who also moved out here to be a writer, called me and said, “Frank, don’t you know that guy, Chris Carter?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, I’d like to write some episodes of THE X-FILES, could you call him for me and see if he’d hear my ideas?” Wow, this was really awkward. I’d never even called him to say congratulations on the show. I’m gonna call and ask a favor for a friend? But I had known him since I was ten. So I called. Chris takes my call and he goes, “Nah, I won’t hear your friend’s idea, but if you have an idea.”

It was easy to come up with ideas. I had watched every episode. So I go in, I thought it would just be him, and it was him and two or three other producers, rather intimidating. I pitched these three ideas and he shot them all down. So I left with my tail between my legs. Then like six weeks later, he calls me and says, “I didn’t buy any of your ideas, but they were all good. I’m losing two of my writers, how would you like to come on staff?”

That’s how it happened. I had not written for television, I was just out of film school, completely unqualified, replacing Glen Morgan and Jim Wong. Nothing could be more ridiculous. But I did have an immediate connection to the show and he was the kind of boss who gave you far more responsibility than he should have. So literally on the third day I was there, he sent me to the editing room to fix an episode. The episode was not working, so Frank, you go in and fix it. You’re out of film school. You’ve never worked on a television show before, go in there and fix it. Then he did the same thing, there’s a sound mix, I want you to go in and supervise it. Oh, okay. Somehow I stumbled through and I rose. I was Staff Writer then I was Executive Producer after three years.

WHAT HE LEARNED WORKING ON THE X-FILES

You can never be smart enough. The audience is always smarter than you. No matter how smart you think you are, they’re smarter than you. You can never be ambitious enough. You’d see writers who would come in, and I probably was guilty of it myself once or twice, not often though, and go, “Well, this will be a good episode. This will be good.” And if you say that, it’s going to suck.

Because you can’t aim for the middle and expect to reach the middle. Every time you write an episode, you gotta go, “This is going to be the greatest episode of television ever.” Also, the harder you apply yourself to something, the more energy you have to keep working hard. The moment you go, well, that’s good enough, I’ll stop there. The converse is true.

HOW MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE CAME TO HIM

I had known David Zucker, who is the head of Scott Free’s television arm in Los Angeles, for a long time. I had written another pilot for him that didn’t go. He would come to London and we’d always have lunch. One day he said, “We’ve been trying to make MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE for years. We just struck out with the BBC and now Syfy wants to try. Would you take a crack at it?” HUNTED had just been cancelled so I said yeah. I love that book. I read it in college. We made the deal and I’m going to read this book again. Then I read it again and the book is not a television series. I said to myself, “What am I going to do?”

I asked to see some of the other versions of the script. Good writers, but they completely ignored the book. I realized okay, I’m not going to make exactly the book. So I thought, what’s this book about. What’s he trying to say? What are the central ideas in this book? How can I do a TV narrative that is true to his ideas? His ideas are mind blowing and difficult and complex, but that’s what makes it great. I took a lot of the characters. I added characters, but I was very deliberate and conscious of why I was changing it and just praying people wouldn’t hate me for the changes.

HOW DID HE MAP OUT THE STORY, ESPECIALLY GIVEN THAT PEOPLE MAY BE BINGE-VIEWING IT?

I was very aware that there would be a lot of people to watch it in a day, a weekend or a week and that changes your strategy. When you do episodic television and there’s a week between episodes, there’s a lot of repeating. If you were to do that in a streaming environment, it would be really irritating. So it felt to me like a more novelistic narrative. So in season two, it’s nothing like season one. It’s not the form that we know for TV. It’s like a novel where yes, the characters’ emotional lives absolutely are continuing, but the narrative is not a repeat. You gotta keep going forward and be fearless. It’s a huge canvas. You have a whole world to tell stories in and we just barely got a glimpse of it in season one.

The Writers Guild Foundation regularly hosts events that celebrate the craft and voices of film and television writers. To find out more about upcoming events, go to wgfoundation.org.


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.