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.

LB Votes for the 2014 WGA Screenplay/Teleplay Awards

Online ballots were due Friday, so I figure it’s safe to show how I voted now that I can no longer influence anyone. (As if that ever could’ve!)

TV Series

WGA-2014-TV-Ballot

Movies

WGA-2014-Screenplay-Ballot

Yeah, I expect some, if not most of you, to disagree. But them’s my votes, gang!

lboldwriter

LYMI

LB

Welcome to the Turning Point for Intelligent Television

No, we don’t mean the technology. We mean the writing.

Yay, team!

bb11by Sarah Fonder

Despite the oft-repeated assertion that this is the Golden Age of Television, TV has typically not been too kind to smart, well-written shows. When a network puts an underdog series like Bunheads or Happy Endings on the cutting board, it’s hard not to go from panic to complete resignation. Too many of us have had to get used to the phrase “brilliant but cancelled,” and for a long time it’s looked like daring television just isn’t all that lucrative. Thankfully, recent reports prove this might finally be changing: believe it or not, critical darlings are actually making money.

The past few weeks have seen the once underrated Breaking Bad move from cult hit to definite success, and previously hesitant advertisers are taking notice in a big way. After a record-breaking season premiere, The New York Times reported that ad space in the final episodes of Breaking Bad is so highly coveted that a 30-second commercial is worth $300,000. These kinds of high-end ad fees are incredibly rare for cable, usually reserved for network television shows with way larger audiences (ad space for juggernauts like American Idol runs around $500,000). One could chalk this success up to the fast-paced narrative that made shows like Lost into huge hits, but the slow-burning Mad Men also broke viewership records for AMC in its season six finale.

And AMC itself has proved to be worth a lot for a channel that prides itself as a thinking person’s network. Though its shows don’t have the massive ratings of Dancing with the Stars or NCISAMC’s content has done so well that they’ve gradually been able to charge cable companies more money to host it. And those companies are paying, whether they like it or not: last year, Dish Network almost dropped AMC after a rise in prices, but complaining subscribers proved the channel was worth the investment. AMC’s dedication to smart TV has paid off: Mad Men andBreaking Bad sweep the Emmys year after year, and The Walking Dead was the tenth most popular show of the 2012-13 season.

The other big success story is Netflix, which saw more growth than ever after the decision to add good original programming….

Read it all

BREAKING CALVIN

Best comics/TV mash-up evah!

Read ’em all

Think TV is Better Than Films These Days? You Aren’t Alone

Actually, we’ve thought it always was. But we’re weird.

Polone: The Main Reason TV Is Now Better Than Movies by Gavin Polone

I recently stepped into an elevator where a woman was practically orgasmic recounting to her friends things Bryan Cranston’s character Walter White did and said during a recent episode of Breaking Bad. Later that same day, a guy next to whom I was seated at a poker table complimented me on a movie I produced. I asked him if he went to the movies often and he replied, “No, not as much as I used to.” I asked what he did now instead of going to the movies and he said, “I stay home with my girlfriend and watch Netflix.” When I asked him what he had been watching, he went through a short list of TV series — which included Breaking Bad.

Without doing a scientific survey of the entertainment predilections of the American public, I can still confidently say that there appears to be a preferential shift away from movies and toward television. I would bet that you have noticed that your friends are more excited for new episodes of a favorite show than they are for the release of a super-hyped studio tentpole movie. Sure, some of the reason for there being more good TV shows than movies is arithmetic: There are more networks producing series than ever, and also it is much more convenient to access those shows on your DVR or streaming service. But there’s more to it than just volume and convenience. The most significant reason TV is favored has to be the overall malaise that has taken hold of the movie audience, which is illustrated by the oft-heard phrase, “There is nothing out worth seeing.” Yes, there have been a few successful sequels this year likeThe Dark Knight Rises, and remakes like The Amazing Spider-Man, and sequel–remakes like Independence Day with Super Heroes a.k.a. The Avengers. But when was the last time you saw a non-animated studio film and thought, “That’s a classic,” something on the level of Goodfellas, Raiders of the Lost Ark, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or Lawrence of Arabia? Of course there have been independent films that may have risen to that level. But when you’re dealing with a mass audience, it is the studio releases that reach the majority of moviegoers, and the studios don’t seem to be delivering the goods as they once had. This explains why in 2012 the number of theater admissions is going to hit a nineteen-year low, while the population during that period has increased from 258 million to 313 million. And I believe that a significant part of the blame for this downward trend can be found in how the studios have changed the process of deciding which movies they will make and distribute.

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Breaking Bad is Hard To Do (But So Worth It)

Oh god, I didn’t mean to start watching so late…

It’s not that I just discovered Breaking Bad. It’s really not that. After all, there is really no way to escape hearing about it, especially when one is in the entertainment industry. But I have to confess it, now, at the beginning: I just finished season one.

We all have our reasons for putting off watching TV shows we want to eventually get to someday, when we have All The Time Ever To Just Watch TV (read: never).   There are plenty of excuses – I’m sure you have your own version of the “I’m too busy to watch every show I want to watch, it’s already the second season, and anyway I hate cliffhangers because when I was a child the monstrous suspense of The X-Files scarred me for life, so I don’t think I can handle it.”  Whatever your less-nerdy version of that is, substitute here.

For those of us who really love television, before watching even an episode of a show there must be careful consideration of the future. After all, picking up a show is a bit like a new relationship: you think about it constantly, speculate almost non-stop about what might happen next to anyone who will listen, and you hope it will never end.

And great shows, like Breaking Bad, are for me the television equivalent of meeting a six-foot-two ruggedly handsome Australian man who reads Kafka and plays the violin. I don’t ever want to leave them.

I don’t ever want to leave you!

And then the pants fly up in the air, and I’m hooked (I’m talking about Breaking Bad again, not Russell Crowe’s musical doppelganger). From the first shot of the pilot – throw out those oft-watched seasons two and three of The West Wing. I could probably write the scripts from memory anyway!

Here’s the bad news:  I’m rapidly losing ground.

And there is nowhere I can go where people are not taking about Breaking Bad! My friend’s going away party featured predominantly an entire circle of people who are dying to talk about the show. Oh no. I’m That Girl. I’m That Girl that will stop you from talking about Breaking Bad, even though it’s the only thing you have in common with the guy you just met, because I refuse to have the future of the show spoiled for me.  That’s the measure of the deep and abiding love I have for television.

Here’s another ugly confession: I hate thinking of all the millions of people in the world who know so much about Walter and Jesse and Skyler than I do. In fact, I just hate them. I hate everyone who has watched seasons 2-4 of Breaking Bad. I probably hate you!

I don’t hate you. You were smarter than me, and jumped on the bandwagon in an appropriate fashion. Just PLEASE, I beg you, on behalf of those slower than you, just don’t, don’t, don’t tell me what happens next. 

BREAKING BAD Creator-Writer-Showrunner Talks about…BREAKING BAD

Sure beats listening to (just about any) star:

Creator Vince Gilligan Talks BREAKING BAD, How His Vision for the Show Has Changed over Time, the Possibility of a Movie and More
by Tommy Cook

“Because I said so.”  Have four words ever been so chillingly, yet rousingly, delivered? Walter White’s Season Five conversation ender put the definitive mark on his transformation from mild-mannered science teacher to ruthless drug kingpin.  The brilliance of Breaking Bad is that this transformation can be viewed either as a triumph of Nietzschean ‘Superman’ ethics or as the moral turpitude of hubris run amuck.  Sure Walter White is a badass – but he’s also a very bad, bad man.  Breaking Bad is one of the only shows in recent memory that can ‘have its cake and eat it too’ – at once both celebrating and decrying Walter’s actions.  How does it get away with this? Because it’s just so freaking good… ‘Because it says so’.

…[T]oday…,creator Vince Gilligan discusses how his vision of the show changed (or didn’t) since day one, takes exception to the notion of Walter White as a sociopath, puts down any Breaking Bad movie rumors, and more.  For the full interview, hit the jump.

Season five is going to be split in half.  Where are you in filming currently?

VINCE GILLIGAN: We finished shooting the first eight about three weeks ago and I finished doing my pass on the editing of episode six.  I still haven’t watched the final two episodes of the first eight; but I’m real happy with the first six.  I have every confidence that the final two will be just as great because they were directed and written by some very smart folks.  So that’s where we are.  We’re almost through the first eight.

Are we going to see you explore the relationship between Walt’s two sons: Jesse and Walt Jr.?

GILLIGAN: I do see Walt Jr. and Jesse as different sides of the same son.  The coy[est] answer I can give is that we will continue to deepen the viewer’s understanding of all these characters as much as we can.  There are a lot of revelations yet to be played out throughout the final sixteen.

Has your vision for how the show will end changed from day one to now?

GILLIGAN: Immensely.  There’s my vision of the show and then there’s of how it would be received.  I can’t believe I’m here at Comic Con talking about the show.  I didn’t believe for the longest time it would see the light of day. I  didn’t think we would even shoot a pilot.  And then once we did shoot a pilot, I had trouble believing it would go on air as a series.  And then when it did go on air for a year/year and a half, I thought the most story we could possibly milk out of this thing would be three years.  And now look here we are at the beginning of season five.  My vision for how things would shake out and how much people would enjoy it continues to astound. But as far as the story goes, we have abided pretty closely to the original pitch we gave to Sony – which was we’re going to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface. We have abided by that.  All the twists and turns of character we have produced over the seasons – I certainly have not seen all of them coming.  My writers and I have come up with them week-by-week and day-by-day.  But the ultimate point of the show: taking a good man and, by will, transforming himself into a bad man.  That was always with me from the beginning.

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Now if only they would put Gilligan’s pic on the posters, like they do Aaron Sorkin’s.