Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With BETTER CALL SAUL’s Gordon Smith

A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!

by Kelly Jo Brick

Photo by Arnold Wells

Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence, hard work and not giving up.

Emmy-nominated writer Gordon Smith credits much of his career success to luck. A friend got his resume to BREAKING BAD just as they were looking for a PA. After landing that job, Gordon’s career grew from working as a writers’ PA and assistant to Vince Gilligan, to landing a position as a staff writer on BETTER CALL SAUL. Now a producer on BETTER CALL SAUL, Gordon signed an overall deal with Sony Pictures TV earlier this year.

WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?

I don’t often think of myself as a writer. I went to school for writing at Michigan and then I was in the production program at USC, but I primarily focused on writing and editing. It’s that weird thing in my head that I don’t necessarily think of myself that way, but it plays to my skills in the arts. I don’t think I would ever be particularly well suited for things outside of the arts. Within that discipline, I think writing suits me.

WHAT IS THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU GET FROM ASPIRING WRITERS?

Usually people want to know how I got my job, because everyone is wondering how you get your foot in the door. Unfortunately, my answer is usually luck, because it was luck. I started as a PA. I got my foot in the door. It’s luck, but I think it really can’t be overestimated how social the industry is, how many things happen because you know somebody and somebody else knows you and you can kinda say yeah, that person is okay, I know them and vice versa.

HOW DID YOU FIRST BREAK IN TO TV?

I was working at USC where I went to grad school. I wrote and edited a short film for a young woman, Nicole, who was a friend of mine and she went on and is very successful. Her first gig was as an intern, I think on MAD MEN, where Genny Hutchison was Matt Weiner’s assistant at the time. They became friends and I had been friends with her, so it happened that when I was looking for a job, she was J.J. Abrams assistant. So I was like, “Do you know of anything?” She told me, “No, but I know somebody on BREAKING BAD, maybe I can get your info there.”

My resume landed in their hands just at the right time when they happened to be looking for a PA. Towards that end, be somebody that other people are willing to say, I worked with this person, I like this person. I’m willing to recommend them. You want someone to be in your corner in that way. You can’t turn the switch, but it can happen if you’re ready and you’re in the right place for it.

WHAT TV SHOWS INSPIRED YOU WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER?

In undergrad, I was mostly writing fiction and plays. Theater was especially something that I took seriously. It wasn’t until later that I started thinking about TV as a viable place to express myself. When I did, there were all these shows I loved or felt passionate about and followed. I was a huge X-FILES fan. I wrote a bunch of scalding papers about it at one point. I was and remain a TWIN PEAKS fan. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, I love that show.

My sister has a history of sitting me down and being like, “You have to watch blank.” BREAKING BAD was one of those shows. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was another one. She was like, “You have to watch this. You haven’t. You’re going to and you’ll like it.” She was right.

ANY ADVICE THAT YOU RECEIVED EARLY ON IN YOUR CAREER THAT REALLY STOOD OUT FOR YOU?

I think not being a jerk is a big piece of advice. Be somebody that other people want to be around for ten hours a day, every day for eight months, which seems intuitive, but I think people also learn a lesson that the thing to be is the person who fights for their vision, which is important, but you have to balance that against there’s a bunch of people around you who are also fighting for their vision and you’re all trying to be on the same team.

The other piece of advice that I’ve heard Genny Hutchison give many times, and she’s dead on, is to do the job you have. If you are an assistant, there’s a thinking that the way to go is to dress for the job that you want, not the job you have. You hear that, but there is something kind of misguided about it. It works for some, but you may also alienate some people. You’re likely to end up with people who are like, I needed you to do this job. I needed you to get coffee. I needed you to write the descriptions in a line that are going to go on VOD for the episodes, which are evocative enough that they tell you what the episode is, but they’re bland enough that they don’t have any spoilers in them.

Those kind of things, they can be boring or they can be tough. They are actually quite tough, which is why they are sometimes done badly, but doing them well makes people go, “Oh, you could handle that. Maybe you could handle more.”

AS A WRITER, WHO INSPIRES YOU?

Lots of people. I’m inspired by a lot of the people I work with. I’ve been lucky. They’re a great group of people, because they’re very giving with their time. Tom, Genny, Peter, Vince and the people I’ve worked with a long time now have been very supportive and good mentors. I think they’re all really great writers. So I’m very happy and proud to be part of the team.

WHAT OTHER ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WRITERS IN THE EARLY STAGES OF THEIR CAREERS?

Yes opens a lot of doors. It’s hard to sort of look and say, well, I don’t know if this is worth my time, because your time’s precious. But for a good while, saying yes is going to be way better than saying no. It’s going to open more doors.

I took gigs for a long time that I’m like well, I don’t really love this or don’t know about this. Some web writing gigs, even some projects that weren’t perfectly in tune with my sensibilities with BREAKING BAD or things that I wanted to do, but doing them opened up opportunities. That would be my advice. Say yes to opportunities when they come, because eventually you’ll be able to say no. You’ll get to that point.

Also, keep writing. Keep polishing your stuff. It’s hard to find the time. It’s nearly impossible sometimes, but the more you can keep your head in that, the more you can stay engaged with what you’re passionate about.


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.

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL & SCREENWRITING CONFERENCE

2016 Awardees panel with Paul Feig, Nancy Meyers, Marta Kauffman during the Austin Film Festival. (Photo by Jack Plunkett)

2016 Awardees panel with Paul Feig, Nancy Meyers, Marta Kauffman during the Austin Film Festival. (Photo by Jack Plunkett)

by Kelly Jo Brick

The Annual Austin Film Festival and Screenwriting Conference gathers professional and aspiring writers together in the celebration of the contribution writers make to film and television.

Attendees had the opportunity to see a jam packed slate of films as well as choose from a variety of panels on the craft, art and business of writing for television and film. TVWriter.com’s own Contributing Editor Kelly Jo Brick, was in Austin as a panelist this year and she brings some top takeaways from the event.

BREAKING IN 

  • Breaking in through the assistant ranks is a great way to show your personality to the people who are making staffing decisions. Getting a writing job is 50% personality, 50% writing. – Raamla Mohamed, SCANDAL, STILL STAR-CROSSED
  • Whatever entry-level job you’re doing, show up with a smile every day. – Jono Matt, DOCTOR DOLITTLE
  • Age isn’t a big deal as long as you don’t make a big deal about it yourself. – VJ Boyd, JUSTIFIED, THE PLAYER
  • For features, the toe in the door assistant route doesn’t work as well. There’s not a natural path in film. It becomes a question of do you find a job in the industry. This avenue helps with meeting people and morale, but it’s often hard to find time to write. The other choice is to take a non-brain taxing job. You’ll have time to write, but it’s hard on your morale. Whatever you decide, the most important thing is that your work is good. – Michael H. Weber, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER
  • Embrace failure. It’s all part of the process. A great baseball batter fails two-thirds of the time. – Kent Alterman, President, Comedy Central
  • You just have to write. Don’t obsess over details, just keep writing. Get out, network, get to as many people as possible. – Mark Johnson, Executive Producer BETTER CALL SAUL, BREAKING BAD
  • Try to make something. Doing that can help you break through. – Pamela Ribon, MOANA, SMURFS: THE LOST VILLAGE
  • Leap frog forward with your peer group. Find yourself a writers’ group. Find a like-minded group so you’re not alone. Shane Black, LETHAL WEAPON, IRON MAN 3
  • If you’re aiming for features, look for a reading job or get a job that gives you regular hours so that you can leave work at work and have more time to work on your own writing. – Christina Hodson, SHUT IN, UNFORGETTABLE

CHOOSING WHAT TO WRITE 

  • Think about what’s not on. Where is there a void, then write an original with a clear vision that is clever, emotional and relatable. We look for specific shows with specific visions. – Jennifer Salke, President, NBC Entertainment
  • Your first script will be your calling card. Just write what you want, don’t restrict yourself to a budget, get a script that people want to read. – Shane Black
  • Find a story that says something to you and write it in a specific life-filled way. You should absolutely write what you want to write. You can only go where your heart goes. – Michelle Ashford, Creator/Executive Producer, MASTERS OF SEX
  • Your point of view is the most important thing you have. Don’t tell people what you think they want to hear. – Kent Alterman
  • Write that weird idea you have that’s unique to you. – Amy Talkington, THE ICE QUEENS

PITCHING

  • When pitching, start from a relatable human character dynamic, that is what will pull people in. Who is in this world? Why do I care? – Jennifer Salke
  • Love and know your pitch. Find a personal attachment to it and set the visual and world right away.
  • Pitch the show as if you’re describing your favorite show to a friend. – VJ Boyd
  • Be ready with an answer if they ask what else you’re working on. Have a few ideas in your pocket.
  • Go in with confidence. Pretend you already have the yes. Know your story throughout and have a clear vision for it.

WRITING GREAT BAD GUYS

  • When creating a strong villain, be thinking of what specifically does he or she want and why do they want it now.
  • Stress your bad guys out as much as your leads. Give them their own ticking clock.
  • Characters reveal themselves through the lies they tell and expose themselves through the things they keep secret.
  • Use your own fears as inspiration.
  • Villains should be delicious and fun to write. They are the heroes of their own stories.
  • Art should make you look at monsters and see the evil inside. – Tom Szentgyorgyi, Executive Producer, BATES MOTEL

GETTING NOTES

  • Be wary of any writer who accepts all the notes. – Mark Johnson
  • Be easy to work with during the notes process. Even a bad note can hit on an issue. Be ready to educate/inform others on the notes you didn’t take. – Christina Hodson
  • Bathe in the notes. Let them wash over you. Take them. Listen. Deal with most and pick your battles over the choices you made and why. – Amy Talkington
  • Look at notes as an opportunity to make your projects better. – Pamela Robin

WHAT DECISION MAKERS LOOK FOR WHEN HIRING WRITERS

  • A clear and interesting voice, hearing a particular kind of voice and way with language and understanding of characters, that stands out. – Michelle Ashford
  • A room filled with unique voices. People with facile brains who write well. – Stephen Falk, Creator/Executive Producer YOU’RE THE WORST
  • Complementary personalities and skills, making a good balance in the room. – Kent Alterman
  • Imagination and the ability to translate it. Sheer uncontained talent over process and discipline, that can be learned. – Mark Johnson

    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